BFI London Film Festival presents The Outlaws; book festival tickets here.
Two men sit in a 1920s Chevrolet staring through the windshield. The car creaks and moans, its radiator hissing. With blood trickling down his face, the young driver looks to his side at the man sitting next to him for what might be the last time; a group of armed police standing just metres in front of them waiting to shoot. No words are spoken, as both men’s eyes meet, their journey together at an end.
The outlaws in question are Mikeal (Filip Berg) and the young Johannes (Åsmund Høeg), their hand-drawn images adorning wanted posters; their crimes attempted armed robbery and murder. However, in that single moment sitting in the car, facing death, it’s hard to believe that young Johannes could have committed such crimes. His eyes welling up with tears, his mouth quivering as the cut on his head bleeds out. Maybe he is just a mere accomplice to the older Mikeal? Or perhaps his attachment to the man beside him is born out of love and acceptance rather than a desire to cause pain?
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Inspired by actual events, writer-director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken’s film is a dream-like exploration of two men brought together by fate. One is a violent but charming drifter who leaves destruction and pain in his path (Mikeal); the other is a fragile, caring, and insecure young man desperate to find love and companionship (Johannes). Their shared fate weaved through a random meeting as Johannes walked toward an uncertain future with nothing but the clothes on his back and a rough top hat. The sophisticated and manipulative Mikael, offering the boy a lift in a car stolen just moments before.
Dahlsbakken laces the men’s tale together through a series of flashbacks, each one a jigsaw piece in building a picture of their short but life-changing relationship. A relationship that differs for both; for Johannes, it’s clear there is a sexual attraction to Mikael. Whereas for Mikael, his acceptance of Johannes secret love is bound in a manipulative, controlling desire for anarchy. However, for both men, their need for freedom, acceptance and unquestioning friendship is the spark that lights a mighty fire—their time together, both beautiful and violent as events spiral out of control. Of course, if this sounds similar to Bonny and Clyde, it is. But, Dahlsbakken’s film also holds an almost Dickensian atmosphere; Johannes, a vulnerable and impressionable Oliver and Mikael, a streetwise, world-weary and complicated Artful Dodger.
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Part road movie, part romance and part crime-drama; The Outlaws narrative depth is reserved for Johannes, focusing little on Mikael. Here Dahlsbakken freely moves backwards and forwards in time as we explore Johannes’ young life. Dahlsbakken’s handheld camerawork focuses on the young man’s journey and his past love, recently lost. His need for companionship and protection, rooted in unspoken grief. His first days with Mikael, an escape full of warmth, exploration, and guilt-free companionship. However, this fantasy world cannot last and slowly descends into darkness; Mikael gently steering the relationship by manipulating the boy’s emotions. However, that does not mean Mikael does not care for his young apprentice; his own emotions kept shrouded in mystery, only surfacing through a brief yet gentle embrace or a delicate kiss.
I have no doubt many will find The Outlaws single character focus problematic, their need for a deeper joint narrative encompassing Mikael and Johannes overwhelming. Equally, many may find the narrative structure challenging to follow as it bounces between time frames. But, this is very much the story and journey of Johannes. One rooted in his need for escape, acceptance and unconditional love. And here, The Outlaws excels, its story both joyous and tragic as one young man finds everything he needs in all the wrong places. Here, the film’s beautifully crafted cinematography and magical score encompass the dream-like freedom and danger of unconditional love.