General Chai Shao routed Tuyuhun forces by distracting them with dancing girls and flanking them. Harald Hardrada scorched a nigh-impenetrable Sicilian burg by tying tinder to birds, lighting them aflame and shooing them back to their urban nests. The troops of Cambyses II of Persia brought cats along with them to fight the Egyptians. War is weird. It’s in this spirit that we should take Black Crab—writer/director Adam Berg’s feature debut—the story of a conflict fought not in streets or open fields, but in ice skates across a frigid archipelago. (No musical numbers, though.)
The image of hardened soldiers casually gliding along the surface of frozen lakes is, on paper, comical. In practice it’s pretty funny, too, though the unintentional silliness wears off rapidly. Black Crab is a serious movie with little patience for goofing around. Berg opens in what looks close to the present, with erstwhile speed skater Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) driving her daughter Vanja (Stella Marcimain Klintberg) the hell out of Dodge. No “why” is given, but the “what” suffices: No sooner do they inch their way into a crowded road tunnel than masked men in camo gear storm the highway and gun down fleeing civilians. When the picture cuts, an unspecified amount of time has passed and Caroline is now a veteran in the post-apocalypse; Vanja is nowhere to be seen.
Black Crab uses its aesthetic of vagueness to its advantage. Berg and screenwriting partners Pelle Rådström and Jerker Virdborg (upon whose novel the movie is based) don’t try to define terms, allegiances or morality. We do not know who to consider the good guys and who to consider the bad guys. All we know is that Caroline is enlisted in the army, her enlistment is forced and her superiors believe that the war they’re fighting is nearly lost. Their final hope to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat: Assemble a crack team of elite soldiers, outfit them with MacGuffin capsules guaranteed to turn the tide and have them skate through hostile territory to “end the war.” What a pretty notion.
At this very moment, Russia’s military might is being wielded against the comparatively weak Ukrainian army by Vladimir Putin. As wars go, things don’t get as black and white as this: Putin’s a cruel tyrant with no redeeming qualities and a probable case of batshit insanity, and the New York Times’ conflict-defining photo of Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children, Mykyta and Alisa, lying dead from mortar blasts have laid bare his barbarity to the international community. Into this moment comes Black Crab, where there is neither a Putin nor a Volodymyr Zelenskyy. (There are Tetianas, Mykytas and Alisas. There are always Tetianas, Mykytas and Alisas.) If there’s a worse time for a film like this to arrive for mass consumption on the biggest streaming service out there, we haven’t gotten there.
But audiences can always use a lesson in how war is a dehumanizing hellscape that robs participants and witnesses alike of empathy for and fellowship with their fellow man. In this regard, Black Crab’s crime of poor timing is forgivable. Whether its other crimes can be as easily dismissed is up to the individual. Black Crab is a firmly dour endeavor. War movies aren’t usually “fun,” of course, because war is a grave matter not to be taken lightly (even though the movies have taken it lightly throughout the years), but Black Crab’s dismissal of context makes for a grueling film. Without even a delicate grasp on what led to the war in the first place, and who’s at war with whom, the audience is subject only to the soldiers’ experiences, which are grim to the point of excess. Caroline and her crew skim from one horrible encounter to the next, and after a while we slowly forget they’re in a war zone.
Forgetting may be part of the point. Berg denies viewers a clear team to root for in Black Crab, but he invites our allegiance to Caroline as she valiantly struggles to see the mission through and reunite with Vanja. It’s an easy ask. In her recent roles, like Lamb and the imminent You Will Not Be Alone, Rapace has expressed boundless terror and awe in the pursuit of existential questions about being human. In Black Crab, she reminds us with steely resolve that she’s incredibly capable at performing toughness, too. Caroline is a badass, not in the vein of action heroes slaying foes as easily as blinking, but of an indomitable soul no obstacle or inconvenience can stop.
Rapace makes the rest of the experience, comprising not much other than misery and suffering, worth tolerating. Black Crab actually reads as a survival film first and a war film second: There isn’t a ton of combat, though what we do see is conducted with jolting bursts of brutality, and the greatest threats the characters face tend to come from their surroundings, which reemphasizes the plot’s political neutrality. Berg’s rejection of pronounced ideological sympathies will be too much for some viewers to accept. Frankly, the worst offense the movie makes is in its final act, where Berg, Rådström and Virdborg write themselves into corner after corner trying to figure out how to end the damn thing. But when does war ever end? At least Black Crab does us the mercy of a credits roll.
Director: Adam Berg
Writer: Adam Berg, Pelle Rådström, Jerker Virdborg
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Aliette Opheim, Dar Salim
Release Date: March 18, 2022 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.