Are our actions the result of conscious thought or chemical wiring? Are our choices predetermined by DNA or by the ways in which our unreliable brains respond to shifting circumstances? Are we free from blame when our capacity to make sound decisions is impaired by neurological network malfunctions? Questions like those bounce around throughout Danish writer-director Peter Schonau Fog’s blend of domestic drama and courtroom suspense, You Disappear. First-rate actors and polished filmmaking craft ensure reasonable involvement, but the movie’s literary density and structural repetitiousness become steadily more wearing than intriguing.
Based on Christian Jungersen’s best-selling novel, the film opens with a promising setup: Frederik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) causes his wife Mia (Trine Dyrholm) and teenage son Niklas (Sofus Ronnow) mounting anxiety during a family vacation in Spain as his driving becomes increasingly speedy and reckless on a snaking coastal road. Finally, he pulls over, leaving them shaken and confused, and then either falls or jumps from a short cliff drop while their attention is elsewhere, sustaining minor injuries. But a medical examination reveals a non-cancerous brain tumor, with a diagnosis of orbitofrontal syndrome, known to cause behavioral disturbances.
An unrewarding brain drain.
Mirroring that cerebral chaos, director Fog (The Art of Crying) and three busy editors crisscross back and forth from a courtroom hearing to the family’s life before and after the tumor was discovered and surgically removed.
Frederik, the principal of a tony private school, is charged with embezzling a ruinous 12 million kroner (almost $2 million) from the institution, despite his claims he was merely investing the money on the school’s behalf. While the prosecutor (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) attempts to prove criminal intent, Frederik’s lawyer, Bernard Bergmann (Michael Nyqvist), mounts a defense insisting that his client’s impulse control disorder means he can’t be held accountable.
Bernard’s personal experience colors his investment in the case — while he recovers from a serious car accident, his formerly vivacious wife Laerke (Meike Bahnsen) becomes painfully submissive, struggling with the simplest of thought processes. However, this feels like one plot thread too many.
The perspective of schoolteacher Mia becomes the story’s dominant lens, her reliability increasingly called into question as the stress of the situation takes its toll. In somewhat melodramatic fashion, she begins wondering if, during the three happiest years in her marriage to Frederik that followed his infidelity, he was himself or a dysfunctional alternate version, out of line with his natural instincts. Niklas testifies that the tumor made his dad more of a friend, almost like another teenager, rather than a workaholic constantly fighting with his mother.
There’s a lot of narrative meat about mutable identity here, as the court, with the aid of various personal and professional witnesses, attempts to determine how much, if at all, Frederik’s medical condition factored into his wrongdoing. But Fog’s approach is too often talky and clinical where it should be more urgently dramatic, burdening the film with a surfeit of ponderously technical voiceover dialogue. And the addition of late developments between Mia and Bernard, along with a twist in the concluding stretch that upends our perceptions, makes You Disappear all but collapse under its own weight.
Dyrholm as always is a highly watchable performer, warm, sympathetic and vulnerable even if Mia’s coping mechanisms ultimately point to behavior as erratic as Frederik’s. Kaas gets to straddle a broad range between an apparently kind, grounded man, quietly reactive in the courtroom scenes, and one prone to volatile outbursts and jarring spells of coldness elsewhere. The late Nyqvist, in one of his final roles, is coolly professional on the job but more complicated in private, when Bernard’s frustration with his wife’s lack of progress makes him seem almost cruel. And Ronnow has a couple of affecting scenes, hinting that adolescent hormonal upheaval represents its own challenge to neurological stability.
Composer Mikkel Maltha provides a suitably pensive, needling score, and cinematographer Laust Trier Monk’s camera brings crisp, unblinking focus, if not much visual life. But this taxing drama is far more convoluted and drawn-out than necessary, lacking the emotional payoff or psychological illumination to justify the long, two-hour sit. Fog goes to great lengths to consider whether Frederik is cured or forever compromised, and whether Mia has been irreversibly unbalanced by the experience. But many audiences will have stopped caring before any conclusions are reached.
Production companies: Zentropa Entertainment3, Zentropa Sweden, Film I Vast
Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Michael Nyqvist, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Lars Knutzon, Sofus Ronnow, Meike Bahnsen, Lane Lind, Ina-Miriam Rosenbaum, Morten Hauch-Fausboll, Laura Bro, Henning Valin
Director-screenwriter: Peter Schonau Fog, based on the novel by Christian Jungersen
Producer: Louise Vesth
Executive producer: Peter Aalbeak Jensen
Director of photography: Laust Trier Mork
Production designers: Gitte Mailling, Soren Gam
Costume designer: Kirsten Zaschke
Music: Mikkel Maltha
Editors: Morten Hojbjerg, Peter Winther, Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Casting: Anja Philip, Jette Termann
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)