A unique achievement of crowdfunded filmmaking, The Unthinkable is an indie disaster movie with the feel of a big budget Hollywood production. But the Swedish film has a character-driven story and surprisingly slow burn pace that speaks to its Scandinavian sensibilities. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it stands with some of the strongest disaster films of recent memory.
The Unthinkable begins as a pure domestic drama, with not a hint of disaster in sight. Unless, of course, it’s the emotional disasters that our leading characters are breaking beneath. Björn (Jesper Barkselius) is an ex-soldier who struggles to express his emotions and control his paranoia. His outbursts drive away his wife, Eva (Pia Halvirsen), and eventually his teenage son, Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot). Alex is so heartbroken over his mother’s leaving that he never says goodbye to — or admits his feelings for — Anna (Lisa Henni), the girl next door for whom he carries a torch. Twelve years later, Alex has become a successful musician in Stockholm. His anger at his father has turned him cold and closed off.
The time that The Unthinkable devotes to character development is why the unexpected label of “slow burn disaster” fits so well. We might even think we aren’t watching a disaster film at all, but a tragic family drama. In fact, seeing The Unthinkable completely unaware that it’s a genre film would probably be the ideal viewing experience. But the magic of the film still works, albeit if you avoid all other spoilers. The brilliance of this film is how it recreates what it might feel like to be a character in a disaster film. It makes you care about these people and their relationships. Then, slowly at first, things begin to happen. The disaster at the center of The Unthinkable is disorienting and baffling. It unfurls, slowly at first, then with terrifying speed. And we only ever know as much as the characters do.
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The paranoid Björn has his own fears and theories, and through him, we get a little more of a traditional thriller flavor. The sequences in which he frantically searches for evidence to explain his gut feeling during joyous Midsommar reveling is an excellent piece of suspense filmmaking. Björn is the only character who carries an 80s disaster film vibe — with his booby traps and amateur espionage. It’s a fun throwback, but it didn’t fit well with the overall atmosphere of the film. I felt the character’s potential complexity was marred by his “Rambo” reminiscent arc. Genre tropes can be great, but here, they felt out of place with the rest of the film.
Other than the occasional step into more recognizable disaster tropes, the beauty of The Unthinkable is how unexpected it is. The film gives us plenty of time to sit in terror and confusion, not pausing to explain the strange events transpiring on screen. The small group of primary characters makes up our only point of view. Eventually, we come to understand what is going on. But the mystery of it all is the highpoint of The Unthinkable. The film is not unlike Cloverfield in that regard. But without the confines of found footage, staying within a limited point of view feels like a fresh, bold perspective.
We have nothing of the war rooms or political crisis control familiar to the disaster trope. Anna’s mother is in politics, but other than being briefed that the country is under attack, she’s as in the dark as we are. She’s also at the centerpiece of one of the film’s most arresting action set pieces, a tense sequence on the bridge approaching the Swedish parliament. The incredible impact of The Unthinkable is especially impressive considering the film was made on a partially crowdfunded, $2.2 Million US budget. You’d never know, as gorgeous cinematography and breathtaking action sequences hit you at every turn. But the film hits just the right balance — it’s never over the top, making it all the more terrifying.
“Everything comes together beautifully in the heartbreaking conclusion, revealing a perfect storm of premise and theme rarely seen in the genre.”
Everything comes together beautifully in the heartbreaking conclusion, revealing a perfect storm of premise and theme rarely seen in the genre. Emotional character subplots are a staple of disaster films, but they usually feel somewhat shoehorned in. In The Unthinkable, the emotional core is indispensable. The film focuses squarely on the urgency of emotional connections and reconciliation through the lens of a disaster story. The film’s strong thematic focus is especially impressive considering it’s a group effort — directed by filmmaking collective Crazy Pictures rather than a single creative. But a unified vision survives and thrives onscreen nonetheless.
The Unthinkable is intense, nail-biting, and brutally grim. It’s not a sugar-coated disaster film and watching it is like an emotional slap to the face. I mean that in the best possible way. Make sure you go in unspoiled and prepare for a good cry after.
The Unthinkable was the closing film of the 2019 Boston Underground Film Fest.