Review: Norwegian Disaster Drama The Tunnel Is Most Gripping in Its Darkest Moments

With the city on the brink of springtime (truly, it feels so close), a wintry disaster drama from Norway opens via virtual cinemas this week that makes our very snowy, very awful February look like a nice, albeit cold, day at the park. Directed by Pål Øie, The Tunnel is set in Norway’s extensive road tunnel system, thousands of miles-long passageways dug through mountains to connect one end of the Scandinavian country to the other. In a brief set-up before the film begins, we’re told about the system, and how it’s not built with extenuating circumstances in mind—the tunnels lack emergency exits, and the people who maintain them (including traffic monitors at a central switchboard and maintenance crews that keep the roads clear) put their lives in danger every time something goes wrong. Which is to say, we know from the outset that something in The Tunnel is going to go very wrong indeed.

The Tunnel
Image courtesy of Music Box Films

It’s Christmastime in Norway, and teenage Elise (Ylva Fuglerud) is visiting her recently deceased mother’s grave; her father, Stein (Thorbjørn Harr), works on the roads and seems to be distracted by his new girlfriend, Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed). He’d like to have Ingrid join him and Elise for Christmas Eve, but Elise still misses her mother and isn’t quite ready for a new woman in either of their lives. While Stein is on the road, leading a convoy of passenger cars through the blizzard in the mountains, one of the drivers breaks the chain of cars and speeds out in front of Stein’s plow, only to careen into the snow off the side of the road a few miles before the tunnel the road is heading for. Stein promises to call a tow truck for the driver, who’s rushing to get his young son to his Christmas play, but he won’t be able to continue his journey for now. Slowly, first-time feature film writer Kjersti Helen Rasmussen weaves these and other local stories together to really draw the viewer into the community that’s about to be devastated by the disaster none of them know is coming. We meet traffic operator Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes), for example, who manages the flow in and out of tunnels from a central dispatch, monitoring their operations from closed-circuit televisions and able to open or close access as weather and traffic conditions dictate.

Frustrated with her dad, Elise boards a city bus and heads off; meanwhile, in the tunnel where most of the film’s action happens, a driver is distracted by another long-hauler trying to get his attention on the radio. It’s a close call, but that’s just the decoy; the truck does crash, and two miles into one of the longest tunnels in Norway, traffic is blocked with no way in or out. As long as the fuel tanker the driver hit doesn’t combust, it shouldn’t be more than a headache for the traffic monitors. Get the trucks cleaned up, out of the way and get traffic flowing again.

Can you see where this is going?

It’s that rote predictability that is ultimately what keeps this very serviceable action flick from being something truly compelling. At its most dramatic, when the fuel tank does explode and the tunnel does fill with a dark, suffocating black smoke, The Tunnel is gripping. Emergency responders mobilize to figure out the best ways to reach the people stuck inside the disaster area, and Andrea at central dispatch does her best to keep calm while travelers call in terrified about what they’re witnessing. But elsewhere, the narratives are too thin to invest in, and only grow more threadbare as the film progresses. The reckless driver who ended up in a snowbank instead of the tunnel is waiting out the drama at a nearby inn, cartoonishly frustrated—he’s stuck and not quite ready to admit that Stein might’ve just saved his and his son’s lives. Ingrid is in town when the crash happens and is the one who calls Stein to tell him that Elise is on a bus inside the tunnel (cue dramatic music). There’s a family with two small daughters desperately trying to find their way out of the chaos; we see a notebook on Andrea’s desk with a picture of her own young daughter on her shoulders. We get it, there’s an emotional investment here.

The ensemble cast more than holds up their end of the bargain here, each of the performers taking their role in the catastrophe seriously. And Øie skillfully builds tension in all the right places; the middle of the movie, when the disaster is at its worst and it’s unclear who might make it and who might not, is clearly where the filmmaker is most comfortable. He seems less clear with what to do with the touchy-feeling bits Rasmussen insists on tagging on to the beginning and the end, all of it playing more superficial than sincere. If you can set that aside long enough to enjoy the disaster drama inside a tunnel (admittedly a unique set up that only really works in Norway), there’s something halfway decent hidden in all the smoke and sentimentality.

The Tunnel is now playin in virtual cinemas, including through Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s partially closed.

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Lisa Trifone