Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), the hero of Hlynur Palmason's Winter Brothers, works in a forbiddingly austere setting -- a chalk-mining factory in a remote enclave of Denmark -- and yet he moves through this rigid world with an air of elementary-age mayhem. An employee at the mine for "five to seven years" (he isn't sure himself), Emil habitually pilfers chemicals from the company's storage rooms to manufacture homemade booze, which he then transports to work, tucked inside his uniform, to imbibe and sell off to colleagues. His approach to flirting -- his efforts directed at a neighboring girl named Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne) -- involves chucking a snowball at his crush's window and then fleeing the premises.
Much of the tension of Winter Brothers emerges from this clash of man and milieu: a wiry troublemaker imprinting havoc on a landscape of roiling machinery and perpetual snow. Emil's isolation grows more intense after a batch of his hooch reportedly leaves a higher-up fatally ill. Emil becomes lost in a series of VHS army tutorial videos, the host of which instructs Emil in the basics of rifle usage. The sight of the rejected Emil alone (and sometimes naked) in his living room, consumed by images of war on the TV, practicing firing positions on the carpeted floor, provokes Taxi Driver–like anticipation of lone-wolf violence. But Palmason — who comes to this, his feature debut, with a background in visual arts -- opts to use Emil's angst not for a forward-moving tale of vengeance but in service of an increasingly abstract study of environment and interiority.