TIFF 2016: Pyromaniac Review

Contemporary World Cinema

We need to talk about Dag (Trond Nilssen). He’s the son of the fire chief in a southern village of Norway. He’s always the first at the scene of a fire with his dad and the rest of the firefighters. He’s keen to man the hose and to get the other men food so they don’t go hungry and lose their strength. He teaches the kids about fire safety, taking away their lighters and matches.

He also uses the children’s lighters and matches to start the fires in the first place. This is the setup of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s (Insomnia) latest psychological thriller, and Pyromaniac is a character study worth losing yourself in.

The subject of how a man can have two seemingly equal and opposite sides is pondered here, especially by Dag’s mother (Agnes Kittelsen). At first, she is proud of her darling boy, then gradually becomes concerned then scared for her life. Events at the end of the film merit Kittelsen praise – it’s obvious that she is struggling against her maternal instincts for a psychopath.


And what a psychopath. Nilssen also deserves recognition for the wide range of emotions he displays here. There’s the earnest, helpful self, the isolated and marooned self, the rebellious teenager self, the self that simply wants recognition for one positive thing he has achieved in life, and the clever man who knows just how to start a flame so it will wreak havoc.

The backstory is scarce, but present. You just have to pay attention and understand that sometimes psychopathic actions need not have a motive aside from the sheer pleasure one has engaging in it, regardless of what the depravity may be. Dag was not abused. Dag has a loving family. You can’t blame the mom here. All you can do is stare deep into the vast unblinking chasm of Dag’s psyche and search – search hard! – for a glimpse of humanity. 


Friday Sept. 16, 9:15am @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2


Michael McNeely is a deaf-blind film critic and advocate for greater accessibility in our cinemas. Read more about his story here.

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