Horror and folklore have always been comfortable bedfellows, and Norwegian filmmaker Aleksander Nordaas successfully folds both into an intimate creature feature that strikes a distinctly unique tone in Thale. Even foreign viewers unfamiliar with the concept of the Huldra (a seductive, shape-shifting Scandanavian forest dweller) are likely to be drawn into this enigmatic fantasy thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Silje Reinåmo as the titular creature and playful chemistry between Erlend Nervold and Jon Sigve Skard as the two men who find her. Meanwhile, Nordaas proves he can establish an impressive atmosphere on a modest budget with this efficient and mysterious tale.
Longtime friends Elvis (Nervold) and Leo (Skard) both work tidying up crime scenes for "No Shit Cleaning." They've been dispatched to a house deep in the forest to clean up the body of an animal-attack victim when they discover a secret door in the home. Upon investigating, they find that the door leads to a hidden laboratory where a fearful woman named Thale (Reinåmo) lies dormant in a bathtub, sustained by feeding tubes. The duo also come across audio diaries left by her caretaker, which offer clues to her mysterious origins. The situation suddenly turns frightening when a team of heavily armed mercenaries show up determined to claim Thale, who is far more powerful than Elvis and Leo could have guessed. At the same time, there are other beings out in the forest like Thale, and they long to bring her back to the wilderness.
One needn't be a student of Norwegian folklore to appreciate what writer/director Nordaas has accomplished in Thale, because from the very beginning it's not even clear that the two protagonists know quite what they're dealing with when they find the frightened creature hidden in the subterranean lair. As a series of cassette-tape recordings made by Thale's deceased guardian gradually reveal her true nature, the film almost displays a Coen Brothers quality with its subtle humor and sly characterization. Though the deliberate nature of Nordaas' screenplay might prompt more impatient viewers to tune out, those who can appreciate his careful attention to detail and artful means of sustaining tension will be rewarded with a movie that manages to tell a satisfying story with fully realized characters in just 77 minutes. At a time when brevity in filmmaking seems to be a lost art form, that approach shows a director who is confident enough in his work not to overindulge.
Once the mercenaries enter the picture, Thale becomes a bit more conventional, but it's no less interesting since their motivations remain uncertain and we finally see the creature embracing her power. To say that it turns into an action film at this point would be a bit of an overstatement, though things do pick up a bit as the "sisters" we've only seen glimpses of begin to play a bigger role, causing us to fear what grim fate could befall Elvis and Leo. A thinking person's monster movie, Thale assumes that we will be smart enough to piece together the mystery it lays out before us, and rewards those who do with a story that, despite its smallness in scale, is refreshingly large in imagination.