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Case Number 18397: Small Claims Court

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Troubled Water

Film Movement // 2008 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // February 24th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Bill Gibron was moved by this graceful, thoughtful film.

The Charge

You'll Need a Massive Bridge to Traverse these Troubled Waters

The Case

When he was a teenager, Jan Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) was involved in a petty crime that went horribly wrong. A young child wound up dead as a result. Convicted of murder, he spends several years in jail before earning parole. Fate steps in and lands him a job at a local church as their organist, and it's not long before he befriends the empathetic female priest Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and her feisty young son Jens (Fredrik Grøndahl). It looks like his life is finally getting back on track when Agnes (Trine Dyrholm), the mother of the boy he "killed," comes calling. Having recognized Jan, she wants answers. Even worse, she is convinced that the young man is a homicidal pedophile, and she will do anything—anything—to protect Anna and Jens from him.

At two hours total, Troubled Water is a terrific and often terrifying tone poem. It's a graceful, moody piece about atonement, fault, retribution, and forgiveness. Filmmaker Erik Poppe, working in his native Norway, takes a sensational script by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and milks every ounce of atmosphere and emotion out of it. Set up in two parts—basically Jan's story and then Agnes' point of view—we get a very even-handed and effective look at crime, fact vs. fantasy, and the aftermath of being obsessed by both. There is nothing wholly sinister or sick about what Jan is accused of. He and his mate were not out to murder children, but the death did happen. Our lead does hold a secret or two that definitely drive him to distraction and it's this information upon which Troubled Water hinges. We want to believe in his proclaimed innocence, and Poppe plays with that sentiment up until the end. But because a lot of the storyline relies on what Jan really did as a means of making sense, the previous sequences can seem somewhat like a ruse.

And then there is Agnes. Her story is far more disturbing. We can understand why she wants to reconnect with Jan. She believes he holds the key that will help her find peace and closure. She is also bothered that he is being friendly with Anna's young son. The undercurrent of pedophilia and child endangerment is strong in Troubled Water, and Poppe exaggerates it by providing scenes which seem to implicate Jan's unhealthy unease around kids. These close up, out of focus shots imply something that may or may not be there, and in our own Western view of criminals and underage boys, the mind makes unnecessary inferences and then boggles. But Troubled Water avoids such tawdriness to take a more serious look at Agnes' growing mania. As she decides to "interfere" with Jan's life, we see her own household crumbling under the weight of putting on a façade for the sake of the social circle. She is always ready to crack, and seeing Jan with Jens pushes her over the edge.

Beautifully acted and told in a slow, deliberate manner, Troubled Water is effective in both what it does and what it doesn't do. It takes a prank gone deadly and turns it into a reflection on the meaning of life. It uses a contrasting narrative (we follow Jan until hour one, and then it's almost all Agnes until the end) to show how lives are shattered and almost irretrievably broken by such grief and pain, and when everything comes to a head during the finale, the healing power in truth and personal connection. The acting from Hagen and Dyrholm is excellent, and Poppe never overstays his artistic welcome, working both fluidly and economically to get his point across. For many who wonder why foreign films frequently trump their Tinseltown cousins, Troubled Water is an excellent example of finesse finding the truth better than a bunch of melodramatic fireworks.

Released as part of the DVD of the Month club conceit known as Film Movement, the transfer here is terrific. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is crisp, clean, colorful, and loaded with details. During one moment when both of our leads find themselves soaking wet, you can actually see the individual drops of water falling from their hair. Norway looks gorgeous, both old world and up to date, and Poppe's visual style is served well by the digital presentation. On the sound side, we get a nice Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix—nothing fancy, but with understandable dialogue (translated into easy-to-read English subtitles) and nice, natural underscore. The organ scenes also soar, their epic aural ambience really filling the speakers (especially during a sensational version of the Simon and Garfunkel song which inspires the title).

As for added content, we are treated to a similarly themed short film from Yugoslavia (by way of the US). Entitled The Kolaborator, it deals with a soccer star turned soldier who must decide between his duty and executing someone from his past. It's very powerful, and matches well with Troubled Water. There is also a collection of trailers, some information on the club, and a few text based biographies. As an example of its wares, Film Movement couldn't ask for a better film.

The Verdict

Troubled Water may be subtle and slow in its delivery, but it packs quite an emotional and artistic punch. Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: Film Movement
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Norwegian)
• English
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Short Film
• Trailer
• Bios


• IMDb
• IMDb: The Kolaborator
• Official Site

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