Review: ‘The Unthinkable,’ starring Christoffer Nordenrot, Lisa Henni, Jesper Barkselius and Pia Halvorsen

May 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jesper Barkselius and Christoffer Nordenrot in “The Unthinkable” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“The Unthinkable”

Directed by Crazy Pictures

Swedish and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sweden, the dramatic thriller “The Unthinkable” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class during an apocalyptic “weapons of mass destruction” attack.

Culture Clash: During this attack, a professional musician has to come to terms with his fractured relationship with his father and his unresolved feelings about a past love from his teenage years.

Culture Audience: “The Unthinkable” will appeal primarily to people who like epic-styled disaster films that are a little on the artsy side and have more character development than most other disaster movies.

Lisa Henni and Christoffer Nordenrot in “The Unthinkable” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

You know how a lot of disaster movies get a lot of criticism for not having enough character development or backstories for the main characters? The Swedish film “The Unthinkable” attempts to prevent that type of criticism, by having such a detailed personal history about the movie’s protagonist, viewers might be wondering at what point in the movie that the disaster action is going to start. Leading up to the beginning of the apocalyptic “weapons of mass destruction” attacks that hit Sweden in “The Unthinkable,” there’s a prolonged section of the movie that shows the protagonist’s angst-filled teenage life, about 10 years before the disaster happens.

If viewers have the patience to sit through this backstory, it has a payoff at the film’s conclusion, which can be best be described as walking a fine line between artsy and schmaltzy. “The Unthinkable” is the first feature film written and directed by Crazy Pictures, a collective co-founded by five Swedish filmmakers who are longtime friends: Victor Danell, Hannes Krantz, Albin Pettersson, Rasmus Rasmark and Olle Tholen. Crazy Pictures is also credited with several other technical aspects of “The Unthinkable,” including cinematography, production design, casting, costume design and visual/special effects.

“The Unthinkable” starts off looking like it’s a turbulent teenage drama, because it shows the unhappy home life of Alexander “Alex” Stenberg (played by Christoffer Nordenrot), who’s about 16 or 17 years old and who has no siblings. Alex is a sensitive and talented aspiring musician, but he doesn’t have the respect of his domineering and bad-tempered father Björn (played by Jesper Barkselius), who thinks Alex is a wimp and constantly belittles Alex. Alex’s mother Klara (played by Ulrika Bäckström) encourages Alex to be himself, but Klara is also the target of Björn’s verbal abuse, and she’s generally passive in this marriage.

The Stenberg family lives in an unnamed suburban city in Sweden, where Björn has experience working with computers and in security jobs. During the period of time shown of Alex’s teenage life, his family is struggling financially, but Björn is too proud to let other people outside the family know about it. It’s close to the Christmas holiday season, and Alex has asked for a guitar for Christmas. Björn just irritably replies that Alex already has a new computer.

Alex’s closest and only friend is a girl named Anna (played by Lisa Henni), who is about the same age as Alex. Anna is a pianist who hasn’t played the piano since her father died. Alex and Anna have talked about forming a musical duo together, but those plans never happen because Anna is about to move to Stockholm with her mother. Alex and Anna love each other, but they were never really a couple in a romantic/dating relationship. Still, it’s strongly hinted that their close friendship could have blossomed into a romance if they had the chance to spend more time together instead of Anna moving away.

When the Christmas holiday comes up, and it’s time to open Christmas gifts, Björn goes into his garage and takes out an old acoustic guitar of his, which he refurbished to give as a surprise gift to Alex. Just as he’s about to present the gift to Alex, Björn sees that Klara has bought a new acoustic guitar as Alex’s big Christmas gift. Alex loves this gift from Klara, but his joy is short-lived because Björn then flies into a rage.

First, Björn hides the guitar that he was going to give to Alex. Then, Björn yells at Klara for using some of their savings to buy Alex a guitar. Björn calls his wife a “bitch” for this act of generosity. Then, Björn takes both guitars into the garage and destroys them by smashing them. Björn then goes back into the main house and continues to argue with Klara.

During this argument, Alex overhears Björn call him a “spoiled, bloody wimp” and a “bully magnet.” Needless to say, it’s a miserable Christmas for this family. Shortly after this incident, Alex can no longer take living with Björn anymore. When they argue, Alex shouts, “I hate you!” to Björn.

And then, Alex runs away to live with his understanding uncle Erik (played by Niklas Jarneheim), who is Klara’s brother. Erik gives Alex a temporary place to stay. Erik’s job isn’t specifically stated, but he apparently manages an apartment building, where there’s a vacant apartment unit that’s undergoing renovations. Erik tells Alex he can stay in this empty apartment, but not for long. Alex finds an abandoned piano in the apartment and starts playing it.

The movie then fast-forwards 10 years later. Alex is now a successful, Stockholm-based musician who performs as a solo artist making instrumental music. He has an elaborate musical set-up where he plays multiple keyboards hooked up to several computer units. His music is a mix of classical and electronica.

Alex is able to draw crowds large enough to hold a few thousand people per venue. During one of his performances, he abruptly ends the concert because he seems emotionally troubled by something. He gets a standing ovation anyway.

After this concert, tragedy strikes. The Slussen subway station in Stockholm has experienced several explosions. And then, while he’s outside, Alex witnesses the collapse of a bridge. Thousands of people are panicking over what appears to be a terrorist attack.

Unfortunately, Alex soon finds out that his mother Klara was one of the victims who died during this attack. Even though Alex plans to continue his concert tour with a scheduled performance in Berlin, he takes time out to attend his mother’s funeral. He’s heartbroken over his mother’s death, but his way of coping is to continue working as much as he can.

It’s during this part of the movie that viewers find out that Klara and Björn have been divorced for years, Alex is still estranged from his father, and Alex has no intention of telling Björn about the funeral. When Alex’s uncle Erik asks Alex if Björn will be at the funeral, Alex lies by saying that Björn told Alex that he wasn’t interested in attending.

And what is Björn up to now? He’s a bitter and lonely conspiracy theorist who works in a security department for an unnamed employer. Björn suspects that the recent attacks in Stockholm are from Russians. However, most of the general public and the media have the theory that ISIS is responsible. And later, that theory seems to be correct, when it’s reported in the news that ISIS has taken responsibility for the attacks.

Björn has two co-workers who spend the most time with him in their dingy, isolated warehouse-like workspace. Lasse (played by Håkan Ehn), who’s in his 60s, is a bigot who says, “Computers and immigrants, that’s what’s ruining Sweden.” Konny (played by Magnus Sundberg), who’s in his late 20s or early 30s, is more easygoing than Lasse. Konny and Lasse both think that Björn is eccentric and possibly a little crazy, because of Björn’s conspiracy theories, so they sometimes laugh at Björn and scoff at him about his paranoid beliefs.

Soon, the Midsummer holiday happens. And all hell breaks loose. For Björn, it starts when he catches a mysterious male stranger trespassing in a wooded area that is a government-protected area and off-limits to the general public. This trespasser, who has a German accent, appears to be picking berries.

When Björn asks this stranger to see his passport as identification, Björn is hit on the head with a shovel. And when he regains consciousness, the man who assaulted him is gone. Björn reports this attack, but there are much worse things to come in the story.

The rest of “The Unthinkable” shows how Sweden reacts to even more attacks that aren’t just bombs but full-on environmental warfare. This is the type of story where you know that people will be hiding where they can, stuck in places where they don’t want to be stuck, and separated from their loved ones.

Because of Klara’s funeral and the Midsummer holiday, Alex is back in his suburban hometown and happens to see Anna, his former would-be sweetheart from high school. Alex and Anna haven’t seen or talked to each other in several years. Anna seems to indicate to him that she’s interested in getting together with Alex after all these years that they haven’t been in contact with each other. And then more attacks happen. Anna and Alex have to flee for their lives in Alex’s car. Anna is worried about finding her mother Eva (played by Pia Halvorsen), who is Sweden’s minister of rural affairs.

There are other relatives of Anna who get separated from her at one point or another, including her 5-year-old daughter Elin (played by Lo Lexfors); Anna’s live-in partner Kim (played by Krister Kern), who is Elin’s father; and Anna’s grandmother, who is desperate to get back to her husband Ake. Anna didn’t tell Alex right away that she’s a mother and has a live-in boyfriend, so it leads to Alex feeling insulted and hurt because he was hoping to start a romance with Anna. Even during this disaster, Anna drops strong hints that she has unresolved feelings for Alex too and that her relationship with Kim doesn’t mean as much to her as it should.

And in a disaster movie where the protagonist has “daddy issues,” it’s easy to predict that Alex and Björn will cross paths again. Will they be able to resolve their differences? Will Alex get another chance to be with Anna? Who’s going to survive and who’s going to die? And who’s behind this massacre attack on Sweden? All of those questions are answered in “The Unthinkable,” which spends the last third of the movie going through a lot of familiar motions that people have come to expect from disaster flicks.

The visual effects for “The Unthinkable” are actually quite good for this low-budget film. And the acting, particularly from Nordenrot (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay), is compelling enough to carry the entire movie. It’s clear that the filmmakers did not want this movie’s protagonist to be a typical athletic action hero. The movie intends to show what an “ordinary person” such as Alex does in a crisis, so that who he is in this story can be more relatable to audience members.

And he’s also not a typical protagonist in a disaster movie because Alex (a never-married bachelor with no children) is someone who is very much alone in the world with no one he considers his family, except for his uncle Erik. Alex cut himself off from his father years ago, and it’s later revealed in the movie that Alex’s late mother Klara left her abusive marriage to Björn before they officially divorced.

The protagonist in “The Unthinkable” might not be typical for a disaster movie, but the movie doesn’t veer far from the disaster movie formula that audiences have come to expect. One major exception—which is a bit far-fetched, even for a movie—in this story, Sweden has refused help from other countries’ military forces to defend Sweden during this extraordinarily disastrous attack. “The Unthinkable” is not a groundbreaking movie at all, but it delivers enough suspense and watchable performances to make it an entertaining thriller for most of its long running time.

Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “The Unthinkable” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie was originally released in Sweden in 2018.