Erik Skjoldbjaerg opens “Pyromaniac” quietly, from the first-person view of a car as it barrels down the road and sets upon a house at the edge of the woods. Inside, an elderly couple tidy their kitchen and untuck their sheets just so as they settle down for the night. They awaken to find their home in flames, the idyllic silence broken by the roar of the fire. They flee for their lives, one warning the other, “He’s here.”
The film, playing at the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival, doesn’t waste any time letting the audience know that “he” is 20-year-old Dag, played by Trond Nilssen. Flashing back three weeks earlier, we’re introduced to Dag as he parks his ‘70s beater on the side of a country back road, gets out, lights a match, and tosses it into the forest. Then he goes home. He greets his mother by covering her eyes from behind (“That’s enough,” actress Liv Bernhoft Osa admonishes, after he’s held on too long). He tells her he’s going to bed for the night, but lays wide awake, tense and expectant. But of what?
This becomes clear moments later when he’s called downstairs by his father Ingemann (Per Frisch). Through a deliciously precise tracking shot that follows the aged Ingemann as he suits up, sounds a siren and prepares a water truck -- Dag, in contrast to his father’s confident and tired movements, zooming around in the background like a 5-year-old on Christmas day -- we discover that our arsonist is both fireman and fire chief’s son.
This is the central pattern that plays out again and again in “Pyromaniac” and, while few of the scenes that follow match the sumptuous cinematography of the opening minutes, the film treats us to a mostly engrossing (but sometimes dramatically monotonous) character study of its titular aggressor.
The film is highly concerned with themes of age and angst. The 26-year-old Nilssen is capable of switching between boyish and weathered with minor changes in his appearance. But contrary to what other films might have done ( fellow SIFF entry “Hello Destroyer” comes to mind), “Pyromaniac” does not treat youth as a synonym for innocence. In fact, Skjoldbjaerg seems intent to show that it’s the hallmark of reckless impulsivity.
When Dag takes steps to distance himself from his urges, such as when he takes a second job at the post office, his movements are as tired and deliberate as his father’s, his hair parted and tidy. It’s a facade that cracks the moment Dag is chewed out by a rude homeowner on his mail route, or abandoned on a beach by pretty girls, or by any other hardship. His hair returns to a childish mop; His movements suddenly brim with energy and frenzy, self assured insomuch as they refuse to account for consequence (in an early scene, Dag interrupts a child’s climbing competition to claim the prize teddy bear at the top of a tree for himself). And he returns, again, to the comfort of fire.
It’s a pattern that becomes so predictable that it quickly loses any sense of drama, even as Dag refines his destructive methods and takes greater risks. Instead, tension comes from how he’s able to carry out his crimes with impunity. His mother worries early on about the odor of smoke on Dag’s clothes (“I don’t want to talk about that,” his father responds). The town sheriff comments on his “strangeness” to others and eyes him with suspicion, but fears the scandal of accusing the fire chief’s son outright.
The rest of the town is merely oblivious. A woman who interrupts an arson tells investigators she’ll “never forget his face,” then immediately walks up to Dag and asks him not to smoke. His peers accuse and attack visitors to the town, refusing to believe their troubles could come from one of their own, even an outcast like Dag.
Perversely, Dag’s role as a fighter of his own fires turns him into a heroic figure among his peers. As he basks in admiration and apparent freedom from consequence, his two sides -- his youth and adulthood -- eventually merge and turn him into something truly terrifying: an unburdened and self-assured sociopath.
In delivering a variously manic, awkward, and at times eerily self-controlled Dag, Nilssen joins a long tradition of troubled white men in cinema. It’s a pantheon that crosses genre (it may indeed be considered a genre unto itself) and includes figures as varied as “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman, “There Will Be Blood’s” Daniel Plainview, “Shame’s” Brandon Sullivan and the “Hurt Locker’s” Sgt. Will James. Despite their differences, these characters are united in their monomania, endlessly fascinating in their single-minded pursuit of their character defects.And yet Dag falls into a lesser tier, through no fault of Nilssen’s. Monomaniacal characters are cathartic precisely because they take universal human traits (greed in “There Will Be Blood,” lust in “Shame”) to extremes. By attempting to take on the manifold urges to destroy, be admired, and transition into adulthood, Skjoldbjaerg doesn’t quite bring any theme the attention it’s due.