Benny staggers off the plane and makes his way to the parking lot.
“Welcome to Iceland,” a friendly cabbie says. Need a lift? Where do you want to go?
“Where do people go?”
“When they fly in…”
Hungover or in shock, dazed and/or confused, Benny seems lost. Something, or someone, has him under a “Spell.”
Here’s a darkly comic odyssey that abandons “comic” at some point, and reaches for “soul searching.” That turn away from funny almost stops “Spell” in its tracks, but the film is carried by one of the quirkier heroes the cinema has given us in a while.
Before we see Benny disembarking, we’ve seen what came before, a “morning after” to never forget. A woman we learn is his fiancée (Jackie Tohn) awakens amid discarded underwear and empties, staggers outside and drops into the pool.
Now, shaken and disoriented, this cartoonist/illustrator has boarded a plane for a trip he’d vowed to make with Jess, not packing, not even owning anything warm.
And here we are, a tourist above the Arctic Circle, hitting the museums, the restrooms, the streets and bars.
He’s also licking many things along the way. He’ll pause for an instant, maybe try to walk away from a public restroom faucet, or a penis sculpture in a museum. But he has to turn back around and stick his tongue on it.
Benny, played by Barak Hardley, who also scripted “Spell” and once starred in the TV series “Junketeers” (won’t hold THAT against him), has OCD — obsessive compulsive disorder. He is thousands of miles from home, with no luggage, his dead fiancée’s engagement ring as a talisman and one last pill in his prescription bottle. The OCD is about to get a lot worse.
Let’s SELF medicate! A night out at the bars of Reykjavik is how he meets Inga (Birna Rún Eiríksdóttir) and her pals, how he hears about this legendary old coot tour-guide, Steindór, who leads off-the-beaten-path explorations of Iceland.
It’s also how he ends up in a drunken dare as Inga offers to show him some of her tattoos if he gets one in a shop they stagger past. Game on!
“Spell” is broken into chapter headings, pieces of lore about this legendary sorcerer whose museum Benny visited. Getting the tattoo is chapter-headed as “The Stave,” which is a Rune-like stick-symbol, which it turns out, represents the sorcerer. Benny is following the path of Loftur the Sorceror after getting the dude’s “Stave” inked onto his chest.
His guide down this path? That would be that old coot Steindór (Magnús Jónsson).
Whatever the mystery of “Spell” is, this is the heart of the movie — cranky Steindór leading OCD cartoonist Benny on a tour “up north.”
Steindór can’t even bother to muffle his muttering at Benny’s oblivious reaction to the wonders all around him.
He resists Benny’s urge to get a selfie at every scenic spot, an OCD trait shared by most of us cell-phone owners.
“Why would you want to spoil a beautiful (waterfall) photo by putting your big fat head in front of it?”
Well, then “take a picture of me on top of THIS!”
“No. Not everything is to be climbed…mocked.”
Steindór is a philosopher whose musings are wasted on the bearded dork in mourning.
“What good is it to stand up to a glacier? It will go where it pleases.”
Something else is going on here, and not the “Benny starts to heal” thing we might expect from the story set-up. Something mysterious and dangerous and out of his control takes over the third act of “Spell.”
The quirky journey of self-discovery that the film seems to embrace, the convenient and conventional “Innocent Abroad” plot, becomes the very thing “Spell” shuns as it grasps for something deeper.
That’s an overreach, I think, as the film — as mentioned earlier — shudders to a halt here. “Spell” is better as dark comedy than as dark night of the soul.
But Hardley has conjured up an interesting twist to this “journey of healing” narrative, abandoning laughs for metaphysical pathos.
And as an actor, he seems perfectly-suited to playing a dorky unsophisticate at war with his mind and his memories, but still taking the hero’s journey to get the answers he needs to carry on.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, substance abuse, nudity and profanity
Cast:Barak Hardley, Jackie Tohn, Magnús Jónsson, Birna Rún Eiríksdóttir
Credits: Directed by Brendan Walter, screenplay by Barak Hardley. . A Dark Star Pictures release.
Running time: 1:26