A global epidemic has ravaged the planet, decimating much of the population. Amidst it all, two sisters, Roos and Mira, live in isolation in the woods, fending for themselves. Their parents left for help a month ago, but they haven't returned since.
Their hermetic world is ruptured when a stranger in a hazmat suit appears outside their home, promising them safety in a nearby underground bunker. The girls have a choice to make: to trust this stranger and strike out on their own, or stick close to home in the hopes that their parents return.
Written and directed by Jan Verdijk, this short thriller begins as a portrait of two loving sisters on their own, managing a difficult situation while navigating their increasingly ominous circumstances. It's a quiet, atmospheric film at first, focusing on the sisters and their sealed-off world. Telling details -- from the glimpse of a dead boy just outside the house, or choosing pickled vegetables or cat food for dinner -- tell us plenty about what's happened, and muted, eerie cinematography adds to the foreboding atmosphere.
But the focus in the first third of the film is on the relationship between Roos and Mira, with Roos taking the caretaker role of her younger sibling and quietly taking the measure of their situation. The performances here by young actors Nola Kemper and Femke De Booys are superb, balancing a fundamental innocence with an understated but growing uncertainty.
This quiet but ominous atmosphere is disrupted when the stranger appears. At first, he sounds friendly, but soon he begins asking questions, his tone becoming more insistent and appealing to the younger, more manipulatable Mira. His offer to escort the girls to a nearby underground shelter sounds appealing and sensible, but his manner is aggressive. The storytelling picks up the pace from here, propelling the girls into both a predicament and an ethical dilemma: do they trust the stranger and let him in? As the eldest sister, Roos must make a choice to manage a dire situation.
Roos's choice is drastic, and its consequence is laid out with truly nail-biting tension, each beat leading into a chain of choices that are riveting and shocking. Or perhaps not so shocking, especially in a world ravaged by disaster. "Pantser" delivers a superbly crafted narrative that generates both suspense and compelling emotion. But, with a clear thematic connection to the real-life global pandemic, it also becomes a meditation on social trust and the effects of its erosion on ourselves. In times where survival seems certain, we retreat and shield ourselves from danger at all costs. But in the process, we become suspicious of others and sever our connection to the wider community. And, as Roos and Mira learn, it comes often at the cost of our humanity.