Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormakur directs and stars in The Oath, a psychological thriller-slash-family-drama that opens Friday exclusively at the Capitol Theatre. Fans of Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners will be head over heels for this one: The film features no shortage of drugs, carnage (both sterile and not) and snow.
Finnur (Kormakur) is a respected surgeon and family man, living a life straight out of Best Life magazine on the outskirts of Reykjavik: He's healthy, wealthy and wise, etc. He lives with his second wife and young daughter in a sleek and modern home. He is the owner of multiple high-performance bicycles and trains rigorously for triathlons, or else for the satisfaction of setting personal records. After the early death of his father, though, we see that Finnur has a problem.
His daughter Anna (Hera Hillmar) is in rough shape. She has dropped out of college and is clearly using drugs. What's worse, she's got a new boyfriend, an older guy named Ottar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), who consorts with Reykjavik's seediest underbelly and deals drugs from his pad where Anna now regularly stays. Anna is desperately in love with Ottar, she tells her dad, but Finnur's convinced he's all wrong for her. He attempts to nail Ottar in a drug bust, but his plans go awry, and Ottar warns him that he must cough up a substantial sum or else face the wrath of angry kingpins.
Money is not the issue for this svelt and sensitive surgeon: He tries to use the payback as a bargaining chip. He'll pay for the lost drugs, he tells Ottar, if Ottar leaves his daughter alone. When the plan backfires, Finnur takes matters into his own hands. He concocts and executes a crime with the aid of his medical knowledge, but it quickly spins out of control. (The film's title is taken from the Hippocratic Oath, which physicians used to profess when they began their medical practice.)
The script is taut and, at its best, almost mercilessly tense. In one scene, Finnur must bike from his father's secluded home to the hospital in town to legitimize an alibi. (He can't go by car, because it was used in the crime.) When he arrives, he must perform an invasive surgery on a 9-year-old child. It's an edge-of-your-seat sequence.
Still, the film veers dangerously toward the unpleasant — it has none of the guilty fun, for example, of the otherwise preposterous Taken franchise. Nor are the exploits and the investigation of a hapless criminal rescued from tragedy via eccentricity, a la Fargo. Here, the violence is more intimate, more plausible. And the crime is vicious.
Visually, The Oath is crisp and dark. The camera shows off Kormakur's pedigree as an action movie alum — he directed the Mark Wahlburg vehicles Contraband and Two Guns, and 2015's breathtaking Everest. Scenes of Finnur racing through the Icelandic countryside are sometimes as grandiose as an ad from the tourism bureau. Not since 2014's Land Ho have we seen Iceland on such rich display.