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The Damned Film Review: Guilt Leads To Madness

A girl walks in a cemetery between the mountains the 2024 film The Damned

In The Damned, Icelandic director Thordur Palsson crafts a slow-burn thriller that explores the pain of having to deal with the consequences of one’s actions.

Director: Thordur Palsson
Genre: Period Drama
Run Time: 89′
Tribeca Premiere: June 6, 2024

In The Damned, a 19th-century widow named Eva (Odessa Young, The Staircase) must make an impossible choice when a ship sinks off the coast of her isolated fishing outpost in the middle of a cruel winter.

Struggling to feed the small town, Eva and her crew are tasked to choose between rescuing possible survivors from the shipwreck or prioritizing their survival. Tormented by their choices, the inhabitants reckon with guilt as the crew slowly but surely start to lose their minds, almost as a form of self-punishment.

Palsson’s film isn’t so much a horror piece as it is a psychological study of remorse. Whether it is a small decision or, in the case of Eva and her crew, a life-changing one, regret can consume us as the ocean can sink a ship. It happens surprisingly quickly, even if it feels like an eternity. Although the narrative unfolds in a slow-paced manner, Palsson portrays this sensation quite accurately through his film. The Damned utilizes Icelandic folklore – such as the undead creatures Draugur, zombie-like beings fuelled by hate – to delve into what guilt can do to the human mind.

Eva’s crew tells tales of how the dead can come back to haunt those who wronged them in life. It is through this idea that the film’s themes come into play. Immediately after dooming the few survivors from the shipwreck, a decision Eva makes to reinforce her status as the leader of her fishermen, the Draugur make their first appearance. Palsson questions if these creatures are present or a manifestation of our characters’ guilt. The answer to this is irrelevant because it is the characters’ unwillingness to engage with this notion that matters. If they accept these beings are real, it would mean reckoning with the consequences of their choice, which is scarier than the monsters they’re encountering.

Odessa Young demonstrates so much potential as a performer. It is one thing to act afraid in any kind of horror flick but another to have our protagonist be a monster herself, hiding behind her position of authority while being consumed by anguish. Joe Cole (A Small Light) adds to the film’s sense of remorse, especially when the unspoken chemistry he shares with Young’s Eva becomes almost unbearable for the two. Turlough Convery (Ready Player One) has a standout scene with the rest of the cast that is brutal, Rory McCann (Game of Thrones) has a prominent physical presence, and Siobhan Finneran – though not in it for long – leaves quite the impression.

A man and a woman talk to each other in The Damned
The Damned (2024 Tribeca Film Festival)

Director of Photography Eli Arenson must be commended for his work here. Like he did in A24’s Lamb, Arenson makes the gorgeous landscapes feel like characters. It helps that they shot The Damned on location in Iceland, so as an audience, you are instantly transported to the freezing wasteland. His static imagery is some of the film’s best. One shot of Eva walking through a field of crosses is a highlight, saying so much – Eva walking on top of a graveyard – with so little. Frosti Friðriksson’s production design and Helen Beaumont’s costumes add a lot to the movie’s sense of scale, making it look and feel more expensive than it probably was.

The Damned’s major drawback lies in how it handles the madness our characters experience. It’s not bad, per se, but it feels very by the numbers. Also, once crew members meet their end, it feels anticlimactic. Characters don’t react appropriately when long-time friends die out, which makes the stakes feel low to nonexistence. It’s like the feel does a solid job of building tension, yet the payoff falls short of delivering on that tension.

In the end, The Damned makes for a fascinating portrayal of regret, madness, and humanity’s flawed nature. It doesn’t consistently deliver on its premise, but its visuals are a feast to the eyes, and the cast is incredibly engaging, led by a stellar Odessa Young.

The Damned premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 6, 2024. Read our list of 15 films to watch at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival!

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