Much like the gang of students filming this odd, fantasy-tinged mockumentary, it’s hard to know what to make of director André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter.
A bizarre hybrid of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Hellboy and This Is Spinal Tap, the story follows a gang of three student filmmakers; Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) and Johanna (Johanna Mørck), as they attempt to make a documentary about a mysterious bear poacher known simply as Hans (Otto Jesperson).
Following him through the rural western Norwegian landscape, their attempts to interview the taciturn and evasive poacher are unsuccessful. However, after secretly following him to the site of one of his late night hunts, the students soon discover the truth about Hans’ secretive nocturnal hunting trips.
It turns out that Hans is in fact a troll hunter, a member of the Norwegian government’s Troll Security Service. A de facto game keeper, it’s up to Hans to maintain the troll population that lives in the mountains and hills of Norway and to stop – and if necessary cover up – any troll incursions into human populated areas.
Agreeing to let the students make their film about him – in no small part due to his annoyance at his superior’s lack of recognition for his hard work – the quartet are soon navigating the fjords and forests as Hans attempts to locate the source of a recent spike in troll activity.
Pitching his performance to absolute perfection, Troll Hunter is anchored around the sublime Otto Jesperson as the brilliantly dry Hans. With his deadpan delivery, weathered features and perfect comic timing, Jesperson is a joy to behold and manages to sell the world of the film in an instant.
Backing up Jesperson’s contribution is director André Øvredal. Cleverly making use of the phenomenal Norwegian scenery, Øvredal shoots his homeland with a keen eye that gives the film an unexpected sweep and scale.
Øvredal also does a very good job in handling the tone of the piece, balancing bone-dry Scandinavian humour, subtle observation, laugh-out-loud comedy and the odd scare to maximum effect.
However, despite these undoubted positives, Troll Hunter fails to convince in a number of key areas.
For a start, the main supporting cast ultimately fail to forge any sort of connection with the audience. With non-existent character development and motivations that would be best described as shaky, the three students are presented as little more than expedient cyphers who are handy for moving the film along, but not much else.
The film also falls someway short of expectations in the execution of its visual effects. While not bad, in a film where the reality of the environment is such a strong part of the story, the integration of the digital elements never feels organic enough, and the animation and design of the trolls never fully convinces.
However, technical and script issues aside, the chief failing of Troll Hunter, and the one that ultimately stops the film from ever really taking flight, rests in the creative decision to tell this story as a faux-documentary.
Unlike Neill Blomkamp’s excellent District 9 and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield – which both managed to forge compelling dramas while using, but not adhering to, similar scenarios and techniques – Øvredal’s film is both a slave to its chosen style and a prisoner of its own unique selling point.
Now, that’s not necessarily a problem, as long as all aspects of the film are working in unison and helping to generate both momentum and good will within the audience. If that happens, then more often than not, the paying public will generally overlook a few bumpy moments along the way, and go with whatever the film has to offer.
Unfortunately, Troll Hunter never earns that free pass, as it chooses to favour ironic detachment over dramatic engagement, and ultimately erects a barrier between itself and the audience.
It’s clear from what he’s managed to put on screen that Øvredal is a talented film maker and – together with Otto Jesperson – he’s undoubtedly created a compelling lead character.
Without a doubt, there’s a really good film waiting to be made about Hans and the world he inhabits. Unfortunately, Troll Hunter simply isn’t it.