My first experience with this Icelandic film came nearly a year before it was made, when I had the opportunity to read the script. My friend Ed Weinman, who co-wrote the script, asked me to read it to give him some feedback. It was a moody, complex thriller on paper, and if, I told Ed at the time, they could translate it on to film, it would probably be pretty good. Ed told me that the director and co-writer was Baltasar Kormákur, which I took as a good sign, because I really enjoyed his earlier film, 101 Reykjavik. And when Ed told me they were trying to get Forest Whitaker for the lead, I also took that as a good sign. But then I didn't hear anything more until a year or so later, when I was checking out the schedule of films for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
When I first saw A Little Trip to Heaven at Sundance, I was excited, if for no other reason than it was probably the closest I would ever come to having a film of mine showing there. Caught up in the energy of the moment, I enjoyed the film, but in the weeks that followed, I wondered how much of my enjoyment was dictated by the circumstances of the screening. But watching A Little to Trip to Heaven on DVD, well over a year after seeing it for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the film was actually better than I remembered.
Forest Whitaker stars as Abe Holt, a socially inept insurance investigator dispatched to a small town to investigate a suspicious claim. It seems that an escaped convict and low level conman named Calvin has been killed in a car accident, and has named his sister, Isolde (Julia Stiles), as the sole beneficiary. From the beginning, Abe is suspicious, and well he should be because the man killed in the car accident was actually the victim of Isolde's husband, Fred (Jeremy Renner). Although Abe is not sure what is going on, he knows that something is not right, so he begins hunting for clues, uncovering along the way some very dark secrets about Isolde and Fred.
Going into any more detail of A Little Trip to Heaven would not doubt reveal too much, as the film relies on deception and plot twists. It is never clear what exactly is going on, and as soon as one question is resolved, something else comes along to muddy the waters. But that's not a bad thing, and it's not like the film doesn't make sense. It's just that A Little Trip to Heaven is more than content in keeping the audience in the dark until the very last possible moment. And even when the twists and turns seem to be done, there is one or two more surprises to come.
Having recently won an Oscar for his performance in The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker is finally getting the credit for what some of us have recognized for many years – he is an amazing actor. Some may be put off by Whitaker's odd accent in A Little Trip to Heaven, but it helps in creating his character, which joins the long list of great performances by the actor, who plays Abe Holt as a smart man lacking in social skills, who is not above lying to get the job done. Abe is not unlike Fred, in that both men practice deception, which creates a subtle similarity between the protagonist and the antagonist that is easily lost on those not paying attention. Jeremy Renner also gives a solid performance, gracing Fred with enough emotion and complexity that he never seems one-dimensional. It would have been easy for Renner to play Fred as a complete psychopath, and in a lesser movie, you might have seen that. With a script that gives the two leading men so much to work with, it is a bit disappointing that Julia Stiles doesn't have as much to do. In what is essentially a noir thriller, Isolde is nothing more than the dame in distress, when there is clearly some room for her to venture into femme fatale territory. Isolde spends most of the movie looking either scared or sad or desperate, or any combination of the three. Clearly she serves as a buffer between the two men, but her being placed in the position of a neutral zone should not have been taken so literally.
A Little Trip to Heaven plays out like a cross between the better films of John Dahl (Red Rock West, Kill Me Again) and the early work of the Coen Brothers (only without the humor). Kormákur's direction, combined with Óttar Guđnason's cinematography, and incredible production design give the film a haunting, stylish look. The script is layered with subtle clues and details that feed into the story and add to the texture of the film, while at the same time demanding a high level of attention from the audience. It is easy to miss a tiny line of dialog that carries with it important meaning for something that will happen later on down the line. This is definitely a film that you get more out of the second time you watch it.