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Film Review: Middle-of-the-Road “The Tunnel” Serves Its Cinematic Purpose

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 8th, 2021

Film poster: “The Tunnel”

The Tunnel (Pål Øie, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

As in so many other disaster films, the emotional manipulation runs high in the edge-of-your-seat Norwegian thriller The Tunnel. And while those obviously pulled heartstrings may vibrate annoyingly, the drama nevertheless proves mostly effective. After all, there is something quite frightening about the prospect of being trapped inside a mountain filled with toxic smoke.

The movie begins with text that informs us of the number of tunnels in Norway (over 1100) and how there have been 8 fires inside them since 2011. More disturbingly, the rescue plans in place consider “self-support” a viable option. So, as much as what we are about to see might entertain (or horrify, or both), it is also a call to action to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

We then meet a young woman, Elise (Ylva Fuglerud), visiting her mother’s grave, wondering where her father, Stein (Thorbjørn Harr) may be. He’s on the job, as it turns out, as a first responder running point on a mountain caravan approaching the titular thruway with a winter snowstorm looming nearby. Elise, however, has had enough of her father’s efforts to move beyond grief. He has a new partner, Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed), in town, and Elise is none too pleased.

l-r: Ylva Fuglerud and Thorbjørn Harr in THE TUNNEL ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

After a lengthy setup establishing not only that trio but a much larger cast of characters, the action begins, with a tragic accident that blocks the middle of the passage, trapping people deep within, the air quickly poisoning all who breathe it. Because of what we have earlier learned, we know enough about some of the folks to care what happens, even as we see the directorial machinations at work. Better that than faceless collateral damage, for sure.

The stakes have resonance, in other words. The action has impact, too, though there are moments that make little sense, especially once people start to panic. There’s a family of four, for example, where the parents behave with almost purposeful inanity. It’s like watching supporting players in a horror movie head off, alone, into some dark corner to investigate a noise. Don’t go there! Don’t do that! And yet they do, time and again. There may not be literal monsters in The Tunnel, but unforced errors still lead people to their demise.

Still from THE TUNNEL ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

All in all, then, it’s far from a masterpiece, but it holds our interest. Director Pål Øie (Villmark Asylum) knows his way around a camera, and his mise-en-scène helps make up for the shortcomings of the script. If, on top of the adrenaline rush, The Tunnel also leads to needed safety reform, then it will have served its purpose, and more. Just be careful of that middle section, and bring your own oxygen tank.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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