When people see The Innocents, they tend not to hold back from telling her manager what they think. Frequent “This is the worst thing I’ve ever had” reaction. Followed by: “Thank you.”
“You could see that they were crying,” Eskil Vogt says. He says they shiver often. He shakes his head, smiling a little confused. “Yes. How can I handle that? It’s amazing.”
Innocent is a candidate for the year’s most disturbing film. A random horror drama about four kids who discover they have magical powers, it has been compared to Let the Right One In, Carrie and The Shining. The idea came to Vogt when his children, 11 and nine, were young. When he was standing at the school gates watching them play, he noticed that they behave differently with their friends.
“I wanted to do something about this secret childhood world,” he said on a video call from his home in Oslo. He looks the part of an intense European composer: straight back, shaved head, laser-focused blue eyes. But he’s also a relaxed companion: friendly, with a dry sense of humor. When writing the script, imagine what would happen if the magic of children’s play became a reality – if children developed superpowers overnight. Spoiler: It doesn’t end well.
The Innocents begins when nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) moves into an apartment complex in Oslo with her parents and sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), an 11-year-old who has autism. In an early scene, we see Ida pinching Anna hard on her leg while their mother is not looking. What was most appalling was the expression on Ida’s face: not spiteful or mean, just curious about the pain she was causing.
Eda makes two friends on the estate, a lively little Ayesha (Mina Yasmeen Premseth Achim) and a bully boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf). Things turn dark when these two develop psychic abilities: Aisha can listen to other people’s thoughts and Ben can control things with his mind. That’s darkness in a conceptual sense, though: Daylight is almost always in Norwegian summer: “In Oslo, the sun doesn’t set until 10pm and only stays for a few hours. So we didn’t have a fear of the dark to play with, which is really important in horror movies.” It’s a primitive thing.”
Vogt did not compromise on the audience’s level of annoyance. There is something in his movie that people just can’t take away. “This is a strange thing. I didn’t think the movie would have this effect,” he says. “I mean, most horror movies show much worse things.”
The moment that broke me came when Ida did something indescribably cruel to her sister (she is nonverbal and cannot communicate that she is in pain). No blood, just a speck of blood slowly spreading in a red map across a white sock. While watching TV at home in the middle of the day, I had to hit the pause button and get into the kitchen to take a break. Smiles, nod. I’ve heard it all before.
He wonders if it’s realism that makes innocent so sexy. “Violence in movies tends to be exaggerated. If I watch someone get shot, or their head explodes, I don’t feel anything. But if I see a hammer hitting a nail, I feel it all over my body.
“I wanted things on a dependable level. I think that is why some people have fainted from a shin splint, and it is a very small thing.” Not quite: It’s a piece of wood the size of a Kit Kat’s finger that fits into a baby’s soft thigh.
Vogt is concerned with children’s cruelty that could be considered evil in adults. There is a sentence in Norwegian that says: Children are pure angels. “But thinking about your childhood, or watching your children, you realize that the truth is of course they are not angels. I mean, you are not born with empathy. You were born egotistical and narcissistic and sociopaths. But fortunately, you do not have the tools to impose your will on the world.”
Audience members who met Vogt at shows entertained him with childhood tales. The person that stuck in his mind came from an American reporter, who once captured a group of children walking with a child toward the edge of a cliff. One of the children cheerfully explained that they were going to throw the child off the cliff. “They had an idea, a stupid idea, that it’s going to bounce back.” I smirked, eyebrows wrinkled at what if. “I don’t know if they actually did that.”
What I love about The Innocents is that the main children’s antagonist, Ben, does some terrible things and yet Vogt generates sympathy for him. “I feel it is very important to remember that children are children.” In Norway, a child aged 10 or so cannot be prosecuted: the age of criminal responsibility is 15 (versus 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and 12 in Scotland). That’s fair, Vogt says. “Children can do stupid things. They don’t think about the consequences. They are motivated. They can’t control emotions.”
Innocents is Vogt’s second film as a director. He is best known as the scriptwriting partner for director Joachim Trier. They met as a teenager in Oslo and instantly became best friends. They have written five feature films together, most recently The Worst Person in the World, the Academy Award-nominated romantic thriller about a directionless woman in her twenties.
When I asked him how two middle-aged men wrote such a wonderful script about a young woman, he smiled. If the question bothers him, he doesn’t let him show up. We asked for it a lot. I think the best answer is that we don’t think of it that way.” Instead, they focus on making complex characters with contradictions and idiosyncrasies, he says. In fact, middle age is a good place to be a writer: “Because you still remember what it feels like to be young , but you also know that time is limited; You can see the end is coming. And it would be boring if writing about middle-aged men was the only thing I could do.”
Inevitably, the phone was already starting to ring with Hollywood’s interest in remaking The Innocents. Vogt worried about what might be lost in translation. “I’m afraid they’ll make it like a normal movie. Some things might be too dark, or they’ll try to make the kids a little bit older and suddenly it’s about puberty or coming of age.”
However, he didn’t say no. “I made my movie exactly the way I wanted it to be made, with complete freedom. So if some people want to pay a lot of money to do a remake, it’s just free money for me.”