By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: August 17, 2001
Why is it that even the most high-minded films have tended to romanticize acute alcoholism? Is it the very nature of movies to glamorize such extreme behavior? Even the much-admired ''Leaving Las Vegas,'' whose central character drinks himself to death, invests its suicidal protagonist with the heroic aura of a sacrificial victim whose flame burns a little more brightly than everyone else's. That 1995 movie was only the latest manifestation of what might be called the ''Under the Volcano'' syndrome (from Malcolm Lowry's autobiographical novel), in which marathon boozing assumes a Wagnerian grandiosity.
One of the strengths of Hans Petter Moland's small, beautifully acted film ''Aberdeen'' is its refusal to give its characters' substance abuse the faintest patina of hipness. The movie follows the increasingly chaotic journey of Tomas (Stellan Skarsgard), an alcoholic retired Norwegian oil-rig worker, and his coke-snorting daughter, Kaisa (Lena Headey), from Oslo to the deathbed of his estranged wife, Helen (Charlotte Rampling), in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Before dying, Helen (whom Ms. Rampling in her brief but memorable appearances imbues with a flinty, stoic farsightedness) has also arranged for Tomas to be accepted into an experimental rehab program, which he shows few signs of wanting to join.
''Aberdeen'' is this director's second film in which Mr. Skarsgard (still best known for Lars von Trier's ''Breaking the Waves'') portrays a drunk. In the 1996 Hemingway-esque drama ''Zero Kelvin'' he created an ugly portrait of a heavy-drinking, macho trapper in Greenland in the 1920's. Here he is even better.
Clenched and brooding, churning with rage and self-loathing, Tomas is one of the most realistic (and infuriating) drunks ever to reach the screen. Far from the lurching wild-eyed maniac of movie cliché, he is a furtive, cunning animal who grows meaner and more sullen the more booze he consumes. During his occasional attempts to remain sober, you can almost smell the sour sweat of his rising panic and desperation.
In the film's most disgusting moment Tomas vomits on his daughter while she is driving. In another, he keels over while urinating in a flower bed and is stopped by the police. Later on he is humiliated by members of a street gang who turn him into a slobbering dog begging for a gulp of their beer.
In a performance that matches Mr. Skarsgard's in depth, Ms. Headey's Kaisa is a high-strung chip off the old block. Especially when high on coke, she has a very short fuse. When an airline clerk refuses to allow Tomas to board a plane, Kaisa goes ballistic, spewing a stream of abuse that nearly lands her in jail. She is one of those seemingly fearless people whom you initially admire for their spunk until it becomes clear they don't know when to stop.
The perfectly meshed lead performances evoke an intimacy that makes you squirm, especially when Kaisa, in one of her typically boundary-pushing gambits, imagines that Tomas is not really her father and comes on to him sexually in a half-joking way. Even Tomas in his semi-inebriated state is appalled.
Although ''Aberdeen,'' which opens today at Cinema Village, is a ferociously observant study of two characters, the story surrounding them is rambling and unstructured. As the pair continue their increasingly bumpy journey from Norway to Scotland, the movie throws in flashbacks, unprepared dramatic plot twists and even a heavy-handed symbol or two to provide some narrative texture.
The question of Kaisa's actual paternity is raised out of the blue, late in the movie, and then just as quickly resolved. Even later in the film a hit-and-run accident involving one of the street toughs who tormented Tomas yanks ''Aberdeen'' haywire. Too much is made of a clown nose that Tomas gave his daughter as a child and that conveniently turns up late in their travels.
In giving these unstable characters someone to bounce off, the movie provides Clive (Ian Hart), a sensible, good-hearted trucker whom Kaisa flags down when their car blows a tire. When the sexually freewheeling Kaisa puts the moves on Clive, he blithely warns her that if she wants bad sex, she has come to the right man. Of course Clive turns out not to be bad at all. And when Kaisa feels a lingering pang of post-coital attachment, the movie flirts with sentimentality by suggesting he might be her prince charming.
But in the end this hardheaded little movie doesn't succumb to its mushier impulses. That's why its suggestion rings true that the strained father-daughter bond is ultimately strengthened by their shared misadventures.
Directed by Hans Petter Moland; written by Mr. Moland and Kristin Amundsen; director of photography, Philip Ogaard; edited by Sophie Hesselberg; music by Zbigniew Preisner; production designer, Januz Sosnowski; produced by Tom Remlov and Peter J. Borgli; released by First Run Features. At Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 106 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Stellan Skarsgard (Tomas), Lena Headey (Kaisa), Ian Hart (Clive) and Charlotte Rampling (Helen).