Run for Your Life... or, How to Control an Avalanche

A Film written, directed and edited by Ruben Östlund
Rated R – 118 min – Drama / Comedy - Swedish, English subtitles
This film was the Society's selection for January, 2015

By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

[Spoiler alert: while it doesn't give away any plot turns, this review poses questions raised in the film, with reference to certain scenes and dialogue.]

Take a beautiful family of four -- a handsome dad, a model for a wife and mother, and two adorable kids. Don’t forget dad’s cell phone. Send them off on a fun-filled 5-day family vacation at a fancy French ski resort. Add a “controlled” avalanche. And then let human nature take its course, both on and off the slopes.

FORCE MAJEURE is a slow-motion psychological thriller; with breath-taking scenes of towering mountains that loom so large they make human beings and their hamlets that cling to their steep cliffs seem insignificant, and almost downright petty. Beneath the happy family veneer are all the kinds of doubts and disappointments faced by many adult relationships. They lie so close to the surface that they are perceptively obvious to a child’s eye.  

After a frightening incident where Ebba discovers Tomas’ true character, the two begin those games people play; dancing around the issue that is as obvious as it is unspoken.  Tomas wants to believe and persuade everyone else avalanches can be controlled and there’s nothing to worry; while he simultaneously buries himself in denial and defiance of that other terrified and tormented person he will eventually half-concede resides within himself. 

Time and again, when Tomas tries to “move on,” Ebba can’t let go. After enough wine, she can’t help but bring up the traumatic episode once again. “It’s coming closer and faster. I realize something is terribly wrong,” she says. “I call out to Tomas, but he’s not there.” What kind of man would run for his own life, leaving wife and children to fend for themselves, she wonders? Worse, who would deny it? There’s a weight that hangs over the long pauses and silent interludes, as trying to control and hold back the mountain that’s building up slowly, but relentlessly.

As the chasm between them grows wider and chillier than the slopes outside, Tomas’ brother Mars arrives to advocate rationally from a “man’s point of view;” about the natural human instinct for sheer survival. “When you’re in survival mode, you’re not always able to live up to your values,” he says. “It’s a primitive force to just escape. ” 

“But afterward you have to own up to it, and admit what you did,” Ebba replies. For her, escaping is the just another word for abandonment. And the chilly reception he gets for his efforts only serves to embroil Mars and his young girlfriend Fanny in a spat of their own.

When the two brothers take off together to ski the most precipitous, dizzying slopes, there’s a sense of foreboding that gradually begins to build. Man-talk and primal screams in the wilderness are more productive than inter-personal therapy, Mars recommends. Either way there’s a sense, time and again in this episodic story, when the ground beneath is about to give way any moment.

It makes you wonder if one can really outrun a “controlled” avalanche. It would seem you can always run for your life. The question remains, what kind of a life?