Finnish filmmaker Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s (The Visitor) second feature They Have Escaped is an uncompromising thriller about two outcast youngsters on the run from entrapping institutions. With a hypnotic soundscape, and the blend of vivid dream sequences, drug-induced hallucinations and a harsh, unforgiving reality, Valkeapää has created an unnerving cross-country road movie of interesting sensory experimentation and a story of troubled youths refusing to be caged up. His film screened at the 2014 Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals and understandably won the Finnish Oscars for Best Film, Director, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. It is screening at the upcoming Scandinavian Film Festival, presented by Palace Cinemas.
Joni (Teppo Manner) is a shy boy with a stutter, who has recently gone AWOL from his military service and risks imprisonment unless he has a stint working at a halfway house for troubled youths. He has been assigned there as a form of community service, and is instructed not to make friends with the youths, but to serve as a positive role model. While he is immediately disrespected and ridiculed, he meets and finds comfort with the wild, aggressive and heavily-lipsticked Raisa (Roosa Söderholm). At first his disregard for regulation involves just helping her to covertly leave the facility and pilfer cigarettes, but after she tells him a story of a buried small fortune from her past, he suggests they go on the run together and track it down. Their assortment of risky misadventures include a drug-fuelled experience on an idyllic island, an encounter with a charismatic bobble-head obsessed trinket salesman and a trip to Raisa’s childhood home. The film shifts gears from the wild-at-heart romance in the tense final act, as the repercussions of their naive anarchic journey take a life-threatening form.
This is a dark fairytale that twists from a calculated opposites-attract on-the-run romance into something surreal and nightmarish, and at odds with the set up. But, we buy it because there is an uneasy tension boiling beneath the surface and there are terrifying dream sequences (or are they premonitions) that suggest that something sinister is at the end of the road.
There is a notable sequence when the pair first arrive on the island that they are almost mauled by a wild pig. Having been fleeing from search helicopters, and fearing human intervention to their freedom, they laugh off the animal encounter as nothing. But, having been able to escape the relatively forgiving confines of the army and the halfway house, what if there were far worse institutions out there?
The editing in this film is very strong, and the film maintains its energy through its haunting cinematography and engrossingly abrasive musical score. The young actors, having to portray complete opposites, have a lot of personality and manage to make their relationship plausible. Valkeapää also has a lot of skill in subtly revealing details; building suspense through the unexpected appearance of dozens of golf balls on the ground and then increasing that further by revealing a set of golf clubs inside the well-to-do house they break into and pillage for drugs and alcohol.
The troubling final act is unexpected at the time, but fits in thematically on reflection. While an alternative reading has begun to form in my mind, I am not sure the film presents a strong enough case on that front. On face value the pair’s ability to survive is convincing throughout, but I feel like the film goes a few steps too far, unfortunately undercutting its realism.
But, I recommend adding They Have Escaped to your Scandinavian Film Festival flexi-pass. This film is a trip down a dark, unforgiving rabbit hole.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää
Writer(s): Pilvi Peltolsa, Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää
Starring: Teppo Manner, Roosa Söderholm
Runtime: 102 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: Scandinavian Film Festival July 8-26 (Sydney)