The towering behemoth of a forest troll looms over the cameraman, its three heads sniffing the air violently, a shaggy tail swishing through the brush. The scene is punctuated by percussive shifts between night vision and standard, as the awkward bulk of the troll evaporates in darkness only to reappear in an eerie green glow. All at once, the audience sees both the strengths and weaknesses of André Øvredal’s Trollhunter (Trollejegeren), which offers a uniquely visceral experience but loses something in its calculated sensationalism.
This Norwegian film joins the ranks of an increasingly popular brand of film, a mockumentary where an external threat is slowly revealed through the process of faux documentation, such as Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. The potential advantage of this new genre of film is a sense of immediacy and mystery. However, as Trollhunter well exemplifies, you risk neglecting character development in favor of unraveling your plot through the meta-filmmaking process.
Through the course of the film, we follow a group of Norwegian college students attempting to make a journalistic documentary on a local bear poacher. It becomes obvious early on that these students have no real vested interest in bear poaching; they are simply attempting to harness some potent spectacle of documentation for their project. Once the government cover-up of the existence of trolls is exposed, the supposed bear poacher being at the focal point, they appropriately take to the revelation with an opportunistic zeal worthy of every journalism stereo-archetype ever written, and never really transcend their own base character definitions.
The shame is that the film occasionally proves it knows how to characterize in brief, succinct sequences because the actual troll hunter comes across as a significantly distinct individual. He speaks and acts with uniquity, and there is a brief moment of flirtation with a veterinarian, as well as a scene where he lifts up his shirt to show a swath of scars, that helps build a fantastic subtextual narrative for him. However, the college kids never really get past the giddy excitement of filming trolls and being star struck by the troll hunter himself, which becomes problematic if the audience is to concern itself with the inherent danger of the situation.
In contrast, the film truly excels when offering explanation for the troll’s world. For instance, Trollhunter describes the bureaucratic process of keeping the trolls to specific regional boundaries, and explains the scientific process for trolls turning to stone in sunlight, revealing a well-developed insight into the film’s fictional universe. However, it should be said that a crucial plot point is that the trolls can smell Christian blood, which is never really explained. Personally, I think a little mystery goes a long way to legitimize a myth, but it would have been interesting to hear the film’s explanation for this.
The film proves to be breathtaking in scope but it is ultimately a shallow experience, where the low groans of the trolls heard through the trees do not engender fear for the characters but instead inspire the audience’s curiosity. While this is certainly entertaining, I can’t help but feel that the film does not live up to its full potential. However, scenes like the one where a Jeep Wrangler desperately races between the plodding steps of giant troll feet do well to make me forget. Trollhunter is meant for the theater, it is pure spectacle with little lasting merit. This is a brand of film that has its place in cinema along with everything else.
Trollhunter is released in the U.S. on June 10, in France on July 20 and in Turkey on May 27.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
And here’s what some Swedish reviewers had to say (in Swedish): Kulturbloggen.