If “The Shining” taught us one thing, it’s that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the atmospheric thriller “Fear Me Not,” the other side of that equation is unnervingly laid out: all play and no work yields the same result.
Mikael Neumann (Ulrich Thomsen) has been on leave from his job for six weeks when the film begins, a fact he reports to us in the somber-voiced narration that represents his diary. What sort of work he did, and why he went on leave, we don’t know. Whatever it was, he has done well for himself. He and his architect wife, Sigrid (Paprika Steen), and teenage daughter, Selma (Emma Sehstede Hoeg), live in a gorgeous modern home on a picturesque lake.
Like many in his situation, Mikael has had a hard time adjusting to not working: the unstructured days, the lack of purpose. Sigrid is hinting that maybe it’s time to go back to the office, a suggestion he disregards. Then, seemingly on a whim, Mikael volunteers for a clinical trial of a new anti-depression medication being run by Sigrid’s doctor brother, Frederik (Lars Brygmann). He doesn’t particularly suffer from depression, he says, but “you can always be better.”
Like a 21st-century mad scientist, Mikael reports the effects of this medication to his diary and to us. He describes his feelings mostly with matter-of-fact dryness, occasionally lapsing into near-poetic accounts of his newfound joie de vivre. He is energized by two things: his apparently long-simmering resentment of Sigrid’s control over his life, and his new realization that he can do something to change it. I won’t go into detail about the pills’ other effects on him except to say that his behavior becomes unstable — but, creepily enough, he always remains controlled and apparently cautious.
The film is not a straight-up horror, but rather a slow-burning psychological thriller in which the tension is over whether (and how) Mikael will act on his newly freed darker impulses. The director, Kristian Levring, sets up a number of potentially disturbing situations, always exercising patience, never going for cheap, sudden thrills. This is good, but I wonder if the somewhat anti-climatic finale could have used a little more juice. It’s not quite as satisfying a conclusion as the coldly calculated build-up would have you expect. Still, if you’re going to see one Danish psycho-drama this year, make it this one.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; Danish with subtitles; )