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What Remains (Film Review)

3 min read

Icon Film Distribution

What Remains of our memories, of our selves, of the legacies we create? What Remains, Ran Huang’s feature directorial debut, is a meditative and measured character study. It asks carefully, maybe hesitantly, what we leave to and in our children, scars and blood, through the story of the desperate search for the bodies of young boys who disappeared between the ’70s and ’90s across Scandinavia. Its title, in a way, reflecting on both the physical absences left by the murders, and the invisible wounds that cycles of abuse constantly reopen. 

The film follows the story of a psychiatric institute inmate, Mads (Gustav Skarsgård), slowly unravelling his connection to a series of murders that haunted Scandinavia for the previous three decades. As his bond with therapist Anna (Andrea Riseborough) and understanding with police officer Soren (Stellan Skarsgård) deepen, the reality of his actions becomes blurrier. Marking a rare collaboration within the Skarsgård family, the film dives into an exploration of humanity and relationships that seems to loosen its concern for moral judgement and dedicates itself, instead, to how we intertwine – how we mess up, hurt, cherish, grow with and through each other.

The architecture of Sweden’s countryside takes centre stage – with its angular structures and colour blocks, its strict shapes like grounding elements to characters which otherwise lack any sense of balance in their lives. The pace – controlled, steady, measured – inadvertently denies the emotional depth which attempts to underlie the film. Anchored by quiet and subdued performances, of pauses and long gazes, Huang’s direction maybe reveals itself too strict – regimented, like the architecture it highlights –, leaving no room for the indeterminacy which defines each of our protagonists. So much so that by the end, none of them manage to feel even close to real – and we fail to experience the sense of connection that has supposedly grown between them over the course of time. 

At moments there’s the disconcerting implication that Anna’s maternal instincts are misplaced towards Mads, the murder suspect, as she tries to make sense of his damaged psyche – in the same way passing mentions of Soren’s estranged daughter are seemingly employed to propose a redemptive opportunity in his developing bond with Mads. As Anna struggles with fertility and Soren with the consequences of his past alcoholism, they see in Mads an opportunity – can we undo the damage to a child, if we listen and try? In a scene, Anna and Soren watch over Mads as he swims in a pool – like parents at a school performance, with looks of protectiveness and maybe pride at their progress. Mads’ violent past is throughout explained by his state as a victim of his father’s sexual violence towards him in his youth, to which the rest of his family was supposedly blind to. The film works hard to not pose much judgement on his crimes – the confirmed molesting of 9 children, for which he was institutionalised in the first place, and the potential murder of at least 3. 

What Remains undoubtedly attempts to untangle a difficult narrative by anchoring itself in the three strong performances of its leads. But, no matter how focused the acting is, it is not enough to elevate a material which, ultimately, fails to find hooks for its characters to properly hold on to. It’s a story, primarily, about legacies – one which, unfortunately, won’t leave one behind.

What Remains is now available exclusively on the Icon Film Channel and in selected UK cinemas on July 5th.