Not since American Beauty enthralled audiences and critics alike, leading to multiple Academy Awards, has a plastic bag, buffeted by the winds of fate and directorial fiat, played such a key role in determining the outcome of a particular film as it does in Norwegian filmmaker Pål Øie’s (Villmark 2, Hidden, Dark Woods) latest film, The Tunnel (“Tunnelen”), a modestly budgeted, profoundly forgettable addition to the disaster-thriller genre.
Without said floating plastic bag, the inciting event, an utterly foreseeable fuel truck crash inside the miles-long tunnel of the title, doesn’t happen at all, everyone goes on their Merry Christmas way, and The Tunnel mercifully ends somewhere around the 20- or 30-minute mark. If only we could have been so lucky.
Øie and his screenwriting partner, Kjersti Helen Rasmussen (Voyager, Villmark 2), spend an almost interminable amount of time in set-up mode, introducing The Tunnel’s fearless, bearded firefighter, rescue worker, and all-around hero, Stein Berge (Thorbjørn Harr), and his underwritten, film-long conflict with his strong-willed, pink-haired, teenaged daughter, Elise (Ylva Lyng Fuglerud). Still mourning the loss of her mother and Stein’s wife to cancer three years earlier, Elise is far from ready to let another woman, let alone Stein’s new girlfriend, Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed), into their lives even on a temporary, provisional basis. That doesn’t stop Stein, as well-meaning as he is typically insensitive, from trying to get Elise to accept Ingrid by inviting the latter to a Christmas Eve get-together.
Stein’s decision compels Elise to leave Stein and Ingrid behind and flee to her grandmother’s apartment in Oslo for the holidays. It’s both perfectly and badly timed, perfectly because, without Elise, The Tunnel would miss out on the human drama Øie and Rasmussen are so eager to insert into an otherwise rote, routine disaster thriller, and badly because Elise finds herself on a packed bus in the middle of the same tunnel where the driver of a fuel truck, temporarily distracted by a floating plastic bag, crashes, eventually setting off the conflagration that destroys everything in the immediate vicinity of the fuel truck and fills the tunnel with a massive cloud of toxic smoke, threatening everyone with death by asphyxiation.
While Elise, apparently relying on years of experience as the daughter of a firefighter, takes charge of the trapped bus, hoping all the while for rescue by her father, Stein, newly aware of Elise’s predicament, more or less rushes to save Elise along with the other trapped passengers. Along the way, Stein crosses paths with other ill-fated drivers and passengers inside the tunnel, including a woman desperately searching for her preteen daughters, navigating a tangled bureaucracy slowing down the response, and a thorny relationship with a younger firefighter/rescue worker, Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), who sees Stein both as mentor and rival. At no time, however, does The Tunnel breakthrough, circumvent, or otherwise overcome the various cliches of the disaster genre or family dramas, embracing them all the more tightly with every plot turn and emotional beat.
Øie handles the central crash and unfolding catastrophe with competent, if anonymous, efficiency, though the questionable decision to add superfluous characters and dead-end plot threads undermines subsequent attempts to maintain any kind of tension or suspense. One subplot involves a smug, self-satisfied businessman driving his son to a Christmas play. The businessman escapes the disaster purely through selfishness, literally driving his car into a snowdrift after driving around a snowplow, forcing him to watch the unfolding tunnel disaster from a safe distance. He seems to exist in The Tunnel purely so the audience has someone to root against and cheer when another rescue worker, alert to his mistreatment of his son at a diner, corrects his attitude in no uncertain terms.
As for Stein, he’s an overly familiar stolid lead character, defined less by psychological complexity than the initially unquestioned desire to do what he does best (i.e., save people from disasters). The addition of Elise’s presence in the tunnel adds an extra layer of superficial motivation, never straying from anything and everything we’ve seen before in similar films, from Stein and Elise’s first conflict-ridden encounter, increasingly frantic missed texts and phone calls before and during the tunnel disaster, and ultimately, to their reconciliation as The Tunnel predictably strains for upbeat, life-affirming sentimentality in the final, tedium-inducing moments.
The Tunnel will be available to rent or purchase via VOD Friday, April 9.
- Kjersti Helen Rasmussen
- Thorbjørn Harr
- Ylva Fuglerud
- Lisa Carlehed
- Mikkel Bratt Silset
ScreenAnarchy – Review: THE TUNNEL, Come For the Disaster, Leave for the Family Drama
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April 8, 2021