Friday, 11 January 2013

GFT Programme note: Either Way

Either Way is showing at the GFT today and tomorrow, and is well worth seeking out if you like your comedy understated and Icelandic. It's also available on the GFT Player, from where it can be streamed at the bargain price of £4.99 [info here]. Here are some notes commissioned by the GFT to accompany its release...

In his 2007 ‘Notes for a Theory of the Road Movie’, Argentinian filmmaker Walter Salles laid out what he considered the genre’s key characteristics. With three such films already under his belt and a fourth then in-development (an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s epochal On the Road, completed and released last year), Salles defined the genre both historically and personally. ‘[Road movies] are about experiencing above all’ he wrote. ‘They are about the journey.’[1] This emphasis upon movement and incident is typical of literature on the subject: Susan Hayward’s cinema studies’ dictionary, for example, defines it as ‘movies in which protagonists are on the move’.[2]

While by no means a conventional example, Either Way is a road movie in a very literal sense, with its characters spending the duration on, or beside, the road. But rather than the dynamism of travel, stasis and routine govern Icelandic writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s debut feature, his ‘1980-something’ set tale sharing more common ground with Samuel Beckett than Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969). Its central characters are chalk-and-cheese labourers, painting roads and planting wooden posts in remote northern Iceland. Finnbogi (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson, also credited as co-writer) is the elder and more experienced of the pair; when not grafting, he spends his time writing to girlfriend Rannveig whilst grumpily enduring her feckless younger brother Alfred (Hilmar Guðjónsson). Alfred, by contrast, lives an arrested adolescence, obsessing over sexual conquests, playing computer games and masturbating in his sleeping bag. Their clashing personalities are emphasised in the opening scenes: first, when Finn pedantically scolds Alfred for lifting a boiling kettle from the stove seconds too early (the whistling kettle already referencing the tensions between them); and then in the first scene of the men at work, in which they bicker over who gets to play their cassette on the shared tape deck.

Though tasked with maintaining transport links, the duo possess little forward momentum of their own: when working, their movement through the landscape is slow and stilted, stopping every few yards to hammer a post or daub a line; when off-the-clock, they make camp, rooting themselves in place. Even their jeep doesn’t present much freedom: when Alfred decides to drive to the nearest (unnamed) town to spend his weekend drinking and meeting girls, his trip stalls due to a puncture. The puncture (and, indeed, the rest of Alfred’s weekend exploits) is not shown onscreen, only revealed through subsequent conversation, emphasising the duo’s sequestration; civilisation may be reachable, but it plays no part in the day-to-day experiences that are the film’s focus. The period setting is important in this regard – with no mobile phones or internet to provide easy communication with the wider world, their seclusion is made more absolute. ‘The story is about loneliness’ explains Sigurðsson, ‘and it was very important that these two characters would only have each other and nothing else to get through their difficulties.’[3] Even the roads they work on seem comically underused, with next-to-no traffic; as Finn and Alfred measure out section after section of gravel and asphalt, their actions start to seem less like important maintenance and more like some cruel Sisyphean punishment. The most significant exception to the duo’s isolation is a handful of visits from a gruff truck driver (Þorsteinn Bachmann, in the film’s only other onscreen speaking role). But even these visits become routine: he arrives, offers Coca Cola and moonshine, and then drives on. With the shape of Iceland’s Route 1 network in mind (a two-lane ring road encircling the island), the sense of looping seems even more pronounced.

But while its characters may not journey far in a geographic sense, another key characteristic of the road movie genre – the journey as metaphor for personal discovery – has a definite bearing on the narrative’s development. As Salles notes, road movies ‘are rarely guided by external conflicts; the conflicts that consume their characters are basically internal ones.’ While both Finn and Alfred are, at different points, left reeling by off-screen bombshells, it is their softening attitudes towards one another that constitute the film’s dramatic arc. Also notable is the importance of landscape: while Finn and Alfred may not move through it at any great rate, as they toil amidst harsh beauty, their surroundings effectively constitute a third main character. In the words of film historian Peter Cowie, ‘Iceland remains a cinematographer’s dream’, due to ‘its unpolluted light and its rare combination of lunar landscape and pastoral intimacy’;[4] a striking natural soundstage oft utilised by domestic filmmakers and international productions alike (with the country’s fjords and black sands regularly standing in for alien worlds, fantasy realms, and post-apocalyptic wastelands in the latter).[5] Cinematographer Árni Filippusson helps Sigurðsson make the most of the local assets, providing Finn and Alfred’s mundane labours with an arresting backdrop, the passive, ancient beauty of the barren topography making their disputes seem all the pettier.

Unlike its isolated protagonists, Either Way is already travelling well, with strong showings at film festivals worldwide, topped with an award for Best Film at Turin. Later this month, the film makes another kind of journey, with a US remake due to premiere at Sundance. Retitled Prince Avalanche, it stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, and marks a return to smaller-scale projects for director David Gordon Green (more recently associated with lowbrow mainstream comedies like Your Highness). Whether it sticks closely to Sigurðsson’s map or takes detours remains to be seen, but the speed at which the remake rights were acquired and utilised is already testament to the wide appeal of Either Way’s simple but eloquent setup.

Christopher BuckleResearcher and journalist
January 2013

[1] Walter Salles (2007) ‘Notes for a Theory of the Road Movie’, The New York Times, 11/11/07, accessed at

[2] Susan Hayward (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (Routledge: London and New York), p. 313

[3] Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (2012) ‘Crossing the Line’, Iceland Review, 16/01/12, accessed at

[4] Peter Cowie (2005) ‘Icelandic Films’, accessed 06/01/13 at

[5] Recent productions include Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present) and the forthcoming Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013). Further information is available at

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