In the quiet Danish town of Sorgenfri, the Johansson family lead a contented life. However, their everyday routine is inexplicably shattered when a mysterious, apparently deadly flu-like virus hits the small community. As the neighbourhood is quarantined and families are held prisoner in their hermetically sealed houses, it becomes clear to teenager Gustav that he is being denied the truth about the lethal outbreak. With nothing to lose, he attempts to discover what is going on, which is more terrifying than he could have ever imagined. With the occasional nod to George Romero’s politically astute zombie films, or perhaps more significantly his tale of military biological warfare The Crazies, Bo Mikkelsen’s dystopian vision of a town held ransom to fear is a calm and measured work, more interested in atmosphere than easy scares. Rich in foreboding and rife with paranoia, this is a truly chilling pandemic thriller.
What We Become
Director Bo Mikkelsen
Producers Sara Namer, Louis Tisné
Screenwriter Bo Mikkelsen
Composer Martin Pedersen and Niels Ostenfeld.
An extremely well-made horror film from Denmark, What We Become (original title: Sorgenfri) examines the churning emotional dynamics of a nuclear family when they are placed under extreme — some might even call it apocalyptic — stress.
Mother Pernille (Mille Dinesen) and father Dino (Troels Lyby) live with their two children in Sorgenfri, a leafy suburban neighborhood just north of Copenhagen. While their youngest, a young girl, is sweet and obedient, Gustav (Benjamin Engell), their older child, is in the ‘teenage rebellion’ period of his life; nothing violent, just disagreeable. But even he is cheered up when he sees a pretty girl about his age move in with her family nearby.
Besides these minor issues, what could go wrong? It’s summer and the living is easy. And then everything begins to turn topsy-turvy. A mysterious virus is responsible for two deaths, and then quickly begins to spread. The nature of the virus is not revealed, though television reports indicate the government is concerned. More odd things begin to happen in Sorgenfri, and then the neighborhood is sealed off, and then the residents are told to stay inside.
And then any residents who attempt to flee are shot by the military forces that have moved in. And then armed government workers arrive to seal up all the houses, and then the food supply begins to dwindle, and basic services are cut off. And then the days and weeks go by, and no cure is found for the mysterious virus. Is the government telling the truth? What is being done to save the people who live in Sorgenfri?
Horror movie veterans will sniff out the apocalyptic threat early on and, truth be told, nothing much about that threat is outstandingly new, though writer/director Bo Mikkelsen adds in a few smart new wrinkles to otherwise familiar genre territory. Instead, what makes What We Become taste like a strong cup of good coffee is that the family members are well-drawn individuals, and the actors deliver authentic performances tailored to those roles.
So, mother and father get along well, the mother enforcing discipline and the father doting on his daughter. They’re both trying to exercise patience with Gustav, who has tired of their parental restrictions. Both parents want to enjoy a happy family life, while Gustav wants to break free and start his own life. When he spies the lovely new neighbor Sonja (Marie Hammer Boda), he receives further impetus to act on his own judgment.
Later, when things get crazier, in line with genre conventions, the story takes off based on the characters that have already been developed. That gives everything that happens a greater basis in the reality of the characters, resulting in greater tension, even though we suspect that mankind itself may be doomed.
What We Become is surprisingly compelling, not necessarily because of what happens but because of how it happens. It’s the kind of noir-ish horror that is rapidly becoming extinct.
What We Become is a zombie movie, and as such, you’re likely familiar with everything that’s going to happen here. You’ve got the introduction to a normal family that has no idea the kind of hell it’s about to experience. You’ve got news reports that start coming in over the television and radio about people getting sick, and then people coughing and collapsing in the background. Finally, you have the immediate neighbors getting sick and a quarantine being called, and terrified people that start to fear each other as much as the masked soldiers holding them at bay. And then – zombie chowdown.
What We Become doesn’t really do anything to change up that formula, one that’s been so cinematically abused for the last few decades. Films seem to have stayed away from it in the eleven years (!) since Shaun of the Dead spoofed it so masterfully, nailing that ominous descent into chaos well. (Also, amusingly, What We Become is the name of the tenth trade paperback of The Walking Dead.)
So this is nothing new, right? Why should you bother with a film where you know almost every beat?
Well here, it’s the family that’s important. The mother, father, teenage son and young daughter the film focuses on all feel very real, and it’s all about their struggle. When we meet them we’re dealing with the usual issues any family has. The son is starting to get interested in the girl next door and doesn’t know how to approach it. The mother is mad because she’s always playing the bad guy, and the father is frustrated because no one is really taking him seriously anymore. The clever thing about this movie, which waits until the very last act for the full zombie reveal, is that it chooses to amplify those problems by placing them in this tense situation.
The quarantine, in particular, drives them mad. With their whole house sealed up in black plastic, they’re cut off from all their support networks. Every morning they bring out bags of garbage and leave them outside, swapping them for boxes of lousy MREs left by the gas mask-clad soldiers, who train guns on them in case they think of running out. Their electricity and gas sporadically cuts in and out, leaving them forced to eat cold food or light candles.
The movie also cleverly opens up on a very tense moment involving two of the family members, a scene whose interpretation is completely left up for you to figure out, making you fear for just what might happen later on.
But even without the looming threat of zombies, you’re watching family dynamics shift and become more intense, and that alone is worth the price of admission. But then of course it’s got all the bloodshed and characters making stupid decisions (opening up cargo boxes full of zombies isn’t a good idea kids, don’t do it) that will make horror fans very happy.
Think of What We Become as more of a family drama with zombie wrappings and you’ll enjoy things better. Horror fans will certainly get their fix, eventually, but this film isn’t about that. It’s about people being put in extreme situations and their true faces and fears coming to the surface. That’s what makes it better than it ever should be considering the retread ground.
I’m on the London overground heading home from Rich Mix cinema where I’ve been brutalised by Danish zombie horror “What We Become”, part of the Cult strand at this year’s London Film Festival.
I think I feel worse than I did when walking out of the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, and I was pretty defeated then. If anything, Bo Mikkelsen’s more domestic, more claustrophobic take on the standard of isolated, quarantined survivors (are they sick? are they healthy?) is ultimately more upsetting, more effective.
It starts with the presence of Borgen (and The Killing)’s Mikael Birkkjær. He’s at a barbecue, having a beer with some mates; how bad can this get ? Pretty soon though, you’re wondering how our old mate Phillip Christensen got mixed up in this messed-up shit. He should be getting back together with Birgitte Nyborg, not fighting off zombies through black-tarpaulined meat lockers…
But the fact is that the secret is in getting us, the audience, to root for the protagonists, however doomed they are (and I’m not going to tell you what, if anything, is coming for whom). And Mikkelsen achieves that. His principal weapon in that regard is not the recognisable Birkkjær, but the unshaven, casually-dressed, easygoing everyman Troels Lyby, in residence at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix tonight (and seeing the finished film for the first time !).
We’re presented with a standard domestic family: idyllic in reality although the early exchanges gently play on the everyday challenges of hanging up of discarded clothes and playing too many computer games. And we can all relate – aspire? – to that level of prosperity and calm, where the greatest worry is a teenage son with the mildest of rebellious streaks.
Of course this is all rich comparison-making soil, fertile ground for planting those doom-bearing seeds. We all know it’s going to go to rats from the moment that beautiful Gustav comes home from the lake to see beautiful Sonja. Telling, casual, throwaway lines set the scene, but there’s no rush to deliver. First the random, small-time events, then the CBRN suits, then the strange noises, bright lights and gunshots.
But that’s not to suggest that the film is any less worthwhile or enjoyable because we know (at least some of) what’s coming. That’s the secret of Greek tragedy right? And that’s been working for centuries.
This film works well within the genre because it doesn’t betray its setting or set its sights on too high a concept, staying resolutely small-time and situating all of its action within the ken of its main characters, penned-in and information-starved as they are by faceless, distant authorities.
In addition to the drama wrought by placing believable people in the midst of awful situations and watching their behaviour, Mikkelsen also delivers through sounds and image: quiet/loud contrast is used sparingly and to jump-in-the-seat effect (the credits !); blood occasionally spatters but attacks mainly occur just off screen; and the beautiful Danish summer and countryside is played off against the suburban maze, family cars and attire against military hardware.
For those lucky enough to have a ticket for Friday night’s Film Festival repeat, hold tight, brace hearts, and get ready to hide behind hands.