Film Review: Bridgend

A rash of real-life Wales suicides is the basis of this superbly dour, dreamlike Danish drama.
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Misery seeps into every damp, dour corner of Bridgend, a drama from Danish director Jeppe Rønde that’s based on a spate of unexplained suicides—79 to date since 2007, primarily by teens—in the South Wales town that gives the film its name. Drenched in mist and often set in a lush forest where dew seems to hang on every surface, Rønde’s bleak tale (premiering in theatres and online exclusively on Fandor this Friday) concerns Sara (Hannah Murray), who moves back to Bridgend with her father David (Steven Waddington), a cop tasked with uncovering the reason so many kids have recently hung themselves without leaving behind so much as a goodbye note. That endeavor is complicated by the fact that the departed’s friends are a close-knit, anti-social group with little interest in adults; instead, they spend their time creating a patchwork-quilt Internet memorial for their dead comrades, as well as eulogizing them by stripping off their clothes and screaming their names to the heavens in furious unison.

Spurred by David’s remoteness—which is compounded, in her mind, by his fondness for screwing co-workers in the police station—Sara quickly falls in with this parent-rejecting clique. Be it the sight of the kids’ naked bodies floating motionless in the water, or their initial leader Thomas (Scott Arthur) strangling Sara during a bedroom tryst, sex and death commingle throughout Bridgend. The film is steeped in its subjects’ shared longing to express rage, desolation and desire with the sort of unshackled freedom embodied by Sara’s beloved horse, Snowy. After Thomas kills himself, Sara finds herself drawn to Jamie (Josh O’Connor), whose rebellious death-cult mentality seems at least somewhat less rigid than that of his peers. Rønde, however, leaves the couple’s bond as mysterious as the emotional motivations guiding (and linking) the rest of his characters, who are all in thrall to an alienation and craving for escape that has no lucid explanation.

Understandably given that Wales’ real-life suicides continue, perplexingly, to this day, Bridgend attempts no easy pop psychoanalysis of its protagonists. A cloud of inexplicable doom hovers over the proceedings, especially as Sara draws closer to her newfound friends, who actively taunt Jamie’s man-of-the-cloth father in public, get drunk in another’s house while his relatives eat dinner in the next room, and seek “vengeance” against the grown-ups who’ve made them so unhappy by trashing a convenience store. Rønde employs hypnotic, hazy cinematography and a cacophonous industrial-noise score to further suggest an unavoidable descent into chaos and madness, so that by the time Sara is raging against her father for wanting to keep her from her new mates, the film seems to have charted an irreversible course toward apocalyptic loss.

That inevitably arrives by Bridgend’s conclusion, but Rønde is ultimately less concerned with a cut-and-dried destination than with trying to capture the grimy, gloomy atmosphere and disaffection-driven individual and social dynamics plaguing this milieu. While his preference for mood over plot occasionally results in repetition, the film—led by a mesmerizing, morose performance by Murray—casts an eerie, increasingly nightmarish spell.

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