A few teachers are hanging out in a lounge, having a deep philosophical conversation about death. But when a co-worker comes in, they demand to know the reason for his strange nickname.
Once they discover just why he has such a moniker for a nickname, the once convivial mood in the lounge is ruptured, and the other teachers are revolted and disgusted. But their way of regaining equilibrium is just as extreme.
Absurdist, darkly comic, and furtively philosophical, this singular comedy short from Sweden is as unforgettable and thought-provoking as the central demonstration at the heart of the film. It combines a unique approach to craft and storytelling with a willingness to skate the edge between the realist and the fantastical. Throw in a very dry Scandinavian sense of humor, and it becomes an uncomfortable indictment of the darker impulses of humanity.
What’s immediately striking about the film is its restless, almost anxious visual style. Shot with a muted, almost bleak naturalistic sense of color and light, the camera never quite settles into a shot, often re-framing or zooming in and out of the action, which feels unsettling and even unnatural for the human eye. There are also no real establishing shots, and the audience never quite settles into the place and setting of the story before the co-worker reveals the reason for his unusual nickname and all hell breaks loose in the lounge.
The film is unusual in that there is no central main character, whose journey we follow as they attempt to navigate a series of obstacles or come to a shift in realization or consciousness. Instead, the crux of the storytelling revolves around a “before and after” structure, and the shock of the difference between the two halves. The group is established as cultured, reasonable and thoughtful. But after the co-worker reveals his secret, the previously intelligent, civilized group turns shocked, fearful and repulsed. It’s darkly funny and absurd because the transformation is so extreme and the sentiments expressed are so outlandish.
The narrative could be played for farce, which would be easy and cheap to do. But the visual style becomes even more anxious and even forensic in capturing the extremity of the reaction, raising questions of just how far the story itself will go. As a result, it achieves a strange depth as we watch how quickly and savagely human beings can react in the face of the strange and different, and how negative emotion can be a dangerous social contagion.
Peculiar but always fascinating to watch, “The Owl” may remind some viewers of the oeuvre of Yorgos Lanthimos, whose films often resemble human psychological experiments in their fantastical premises. And like Lanthimos’s films, this particularly thought-provoking short is also oddly compelling and enjoyable in its comedy, and profoundly philosophical in its observation of human savagery and civility. There’s a similar mixture here of puckishly mischievous black humor with surrealist action and horrific dystopian impulses, but perhaps with an even more restless impulse towards visual experimentation.
The twist of “The Owl” is not quite a surprise, and in some ways, neither are the teachers’ reactions, though they’re shocking in their extremity. Some viewers will find parallels to witch hunts, cancel culture, comment sections and other ways that the human impulse to annihilate or punish what we fear can snowball without any balances to keep it in check. However it’s interpreted, the story will linger with viewers for some time in an unsettling, even unnerving way.