Have you ever puzzled over how, with their copious social welfare benefits and humane way of life, the people of Sweden could possibly be miserable? After all, they’re known for their high rates of suicide, even as their pooled taxes fund universal health care and their labor policies afford them enviably long vacations. Why are the people of Sweden unhappy? If the dismally morose Daybreak is any indication, the flavor of Swedish misery is remarkably similar to the kind we do here in America — only colder and with less natural light.
An aging couple’s daughter marries a Nigerian man, shows up to ask for money, and then disappears in Africa. A frigid husband sells the only house his wife and their two sons have ever loved, in order to take a job in another city — a job he loses before he starts. A workaholic bricklayer takes on job after job without getting paid, neglecting his family for the promise of money, with which he intends to buy his daughter a horse she doesn’t want. Affairs aplenty. Embittered marriages. Vicious exes. Alcohol. Mental illness. Infertility. Physical assault. Emotional manipulation. They’ve got it all in Sweden, and most of it is in this movie.
Daybreak is not a bad film. At the character-and-scene level, in fact, it succeeds and even, occasionally, triumphs. For one thing, the script is brilliant in its use of in medias res, the practice of dropping into the middle of a scene without a whit of exposition. As an audience, we must follow along, fingering only a thread or two of the knot, untangling as we go. Perhaps paradoxically (since we don’t yet understand why they do what they do), this state of partial confusion connects us with the characters, bringing us into the scene with them: After all, they don’t know everything, either — especially not in this movie, where secrets out as a matter of course. And with every new reveal, we bond with the characters in our mutual surprise.
Add a fine ensemble of actors to this expertise in scripting, and you have some powerful moments indeed. Pernilla August, playing a woman (Agnes) betrayed by her surgeon husband, is riveting. In one sequence, Agnes experiences a cascading series of losses: She learns, in turn, that a) Her husband, Rickard (Jakob Eklund), loves her “sometimes”; b) Rickard has been having an affair with Agnes’ good friend, Sofie (Marie Richardson); c) Rickard has impregnated Sofie; d) Sofie and her husband, Mats (Leif Andrée) have bought Agnes and Rickard’s home without their knowledge; and e) Rickard didn’t really get the job he said he’d gotten, and for which the couple is supposedly moving. What’s great about the script is that, just after Rickard utters the word “sometimes,” the doorbell rings, and Sofie and Mats arrive for a prescheduled dinner. What’s great about Pernilla August is that she undergoes the entire, dreadful course of events in observable gradations of pain, her face cracking and then crumbling until, finally, she explodes.
This fierce drama is all well and good, until the mercilessness of the script wears everyone out, viewers included. Agnes and Rickard’s story is but one of several that make up the film, and none offers anything remotely resembling pleasure or hope until the bitter end — daybreak — by which time it is too late. In a second plotline, another scorned woman enacts painstaking revenge on her ex-husband, now living with his new, young wife; in a third, a man desperate to earn money for the family he neglects meets a paranoid, broken couple intent on bricking themselves into their own home.
And that’s where Daybreak fails: in the larger picture. First, it takes exquisite pains to portray abject misery, painting each scene in such detail that one has a sense of constant, smoldering rage. Then it carries on this misery for the better part of two hours, finally offering a weak sunrise and some symbols of catharsis to purge the pain. And it doesn’t work. In two out of three cases, the grim, claustrophobic disasters cannot be redeemed.
There’s another issue. The several plots are connected not through action, but through theme: They all offer visions of people trapped inside their failure to confront their demons, walling themselves in, and fleeing the oppression of their grief with medication of some kind — sex, pills, work, alcohol. In fact, it’s repetitive. We could have done with just one or two of these stories; seeing so many makes it seem as if all of Sweden were floundering in the depths of despair. (Could it be? One character mentions that a fifth of the population is on long-term sick leave; maybe milking the system really is that bad for the psyche.) Then, at the end of the film, we see a literal connection among the plots, but it’s nothing more than a gimmick, which feels cheap.