There is nothing about Force Majeure that puts you at ease. From the opening shot to Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor to the seemingly endless explosions set off on the mountains to the unsettling long takes, to how writer/director Ruben Östlund frames his subjects, to the family that seems ready to come unhinged at any moment, to just about everything. Within a few minutes, this existential drama announces that something tragic will tear this family apart. It is to the Swedish director’s credit that something is not apocalyptic.

That family is Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), who have brought their children, Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren), for a week-long vacation at a ski resort in the French Alps. Östlund provides white titles on black cards to signify the day, immediately drawing a parallel to Kubrick’s The Shining, an equally uneasy and horrific family vacation. But Östlund’s movie works smaller, and in certain ways, more effectively.

The first couple of days pass pleasantly. But a threat lurks. While the family sleeps, the resort uses explosives to create controlled avalanches. The constant explosions echoing in the distance draw us further into the suspense of what is to come.

The title Force Majeure is Latin for “superior force” or “chance occurrence, unavoidable accident.” That unavoidable accident—a controlled avalanche on an adjacent mountain—occurs while the family is having lunch at a rooftop restaurant. The family (and other patrons) stops what they are doing to observe. Tomas is fascinated, Ebba is uncomfortable, and the children are understandably concerned. As the avalanche nears, more get up to watch and take pictures until it becomes clear that the avalanche is headed for the restaurant, and curiosity immediately turns to terror. Ebba grabs the children, and Tomas runs. By himself.

The avalanche stops short of the restaurant, and a cloud of snow envelops the patrons. No one is hurt, and no damage has been caused, at least not physically. The air clears, the snow settles on the tables, and Tomas sheepishly returns to his family’s table. Not knowing what else to do, they continue their meal, their lives forever shattered.

That brief moment of flight is what drives the rest of the movie and the philosophical musings attached to it. Tomas is ashamed of himself for giving into primal fears, and Ebba fears that he is an unfit husband and father who abandons his duties when the shit hits the fan. Tomas tries to calm Ebba’s fears, but actions speak louder than words, and this violation cannot be undone.

A friend of the couple, Mats (Kristofer Hivju), arrives with his younger girlfriend in tow, Fanny (Fanni Metelius). When they are told the story of Tomas’s flight, Mats tries to rationalize his actions, arguing—for the sheer sake of Tomas—that instincts are instincts and cannot be controlled, and thus, should not be representative. Unfortunately, the only examples Mats can come up with are hypotheticals that involve protecting others over the self.

However, Mats has a dog in this fight as he left his own children behind when he decided to pursue a relationship with the much younger Fanny. A fact Fanny teases him about, with no ill will, but clearly cuts Mats deeply.

In one of his more illuminating—and incendiary moments—the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce tackled the same subject using pictures from the Kennedy assassination, stills taken from the Zapruder Film showing Jacqueline Kennedy climbing out of the back of the convertible after her husband and the Governor of Texas had been shot. Bruce drew issue that most captions read that Mrs. Kennedy was crawling for help. Bruce’s unpopular opinion was that she “hauled ass to try and save her own ass.”

Tomas knows that better than most, and that realization culminates into a breakdown. He sobs uncontrollably while loudly lamenting cheating at cards, cheating on his wife, running from his children, lying, stealing, etc. He is not happy with who he is, who he has become, and it took one devastating ski trip for him to truly see the monster in the mirror staring back at him. I couldn’t help but think of Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) and Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) caged in that dark, dungeon cell, screaming, “I’m not an animal! I’m not an animal! I’m not an animal!”

Sadly, maybe we are.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Force Majeure (2014)
Written & Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Produced by: Erik Hemmendorff & Marie Kjellson
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 118 minutes, Released October 24, 2014