WHAT REMAINS – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Gustaf Skarsgard and Andrea Riseborough in WHAT REMAINS. Courtesy of VMI.

Inspired by the odd case of Thomas Quick, Sweden’s most famous serial killer, Gustaf Skarsgard (Floki in “Vikings”), Andrea Riseborough and Stellan Skarsgard star in the heavily-fictionalized, English-language WHAT REMAINS, which unspools a tale of convicted man in a Swedish mental hospital for the criminally insane who suddenly begins confessing to a series of unsolved murders dating back 30 years, based in part on recovered memories through therapy. What makes this psychological crime even more intriguing is its cast, with Swedish actor Gustaf Skarsgard as the confessing murderer, plus his famous actor father Stellan as a police detective brought in once the confessions start and Andrea Riseborough, nominated for an Oscar for her role in TO LESLIE, as the criminal’s therapist. This is very much a Skarsgard family affair, with Stellan Skarsgard acting as producer and consultant after artist and first-time director Ran Huang reached out to him. Megan Everett-Skarsgard, Stellan’s wife, even co-wrote the script with director Ran Huang.

The story is nearly all fiction, with only a few points in common with the actual famous Swedish case, such as the convicted man’s name change, the late confessions after long incarceration for other crimes, the involvement of a therapist in the confessions and heavy medication, and a brother who throws doubt on the criminal’s recovered memories of childhood abuse at the hands of their parents. The confessions started in the 1990s, and the real Thomas Quick seemed to revel in the media attention, embracing the label as “Sweden’s Hannibal Lecter,” until he abruptly stopped talking to the press and recanted his confessions. It remains a notorious and puzzling case, with many questions still swirling about everyone involved.

The drama WHAT REMAINS starts slowly, but quickly begins to build tension and character depth, in the way many good Scandinavian crime and police dramas so often do. While the film is in English, it is set in 1990s Sweden, where the criminal justice system is far different than in the U.S. The drama begins with convicted child molester Sigge Storm (Gustaf Skarsgard), who also has a history of being sexually abused by his father as a child, preparing to be released from the experimental mental institution where he has been incarcerated and received treatment. But Sigge is not enthusiastic about the upcoming release, having been in and out of mental institutions for drug addiction and sex crimes for years, and less sure he is ready to cope with the outside world again.

On a day pass to find a job and an apartment, the demoralized Sigge is having the worst birthday ever. At the employment agency, the female clerk is coldly nasty to the soon-to-be ex-con, telling him there are no jobs for him and the best he can hope for is get on a waiting list for a possible job for next year. When she asks for his birth date, he responds and notes that today is his birthday, but does even get a terse, cursory “happy birthday.” When he goes to look at a modest fifth-floor apartment, he gets robbed of his life savings by the man who is supposed to be showing him the one-bedroom apartment. Dejected, he is picked up by his brother, who is encouraging until his younger brother asks for finanicial help, when he is told to stand on his own feet and the suggestion he stay on at the hospital a bit longer until they can find him something. Back at the hospital, he is greeted by staff with a cake and birthday wishes, but there are also constant reminders he is leaving soon.

So when Sigge Storm announces he wants to change his name to Mads Lake and, shortly after, starts confessing to a long-ago unsolved murder, we have to wonder about that confession. The therapist Dr. Anna Rudbeck (Andrea Riseborough), who has been working with Sigge/Mads to recover repressed childhood memories of sexual abuse by his father – something Sigge’s brother strongly denies ever happened – is instantly fascinated by this new revelation. She also sees how it can advance her own career as a therapist, once he hints he may be responsible for a second unsolved child murder. Heavily medicated and under repressed memory therapy, Mads brings forth more forgotten memories and details, both about his own abused childhood and the unsolved crimes. When Dr. Rudbeck tells him she is bringing in the police, in the form of inspector Soren Rank (Stellan Skarsgard), a hardened policeman with his own problems, Mads is panicked. But after a rocky start, the inspector begins to understand that he will get more confessions and more information by letting the therapist work in her own way. The therapist, detective and convict form a bond and a team, as one confession leads to another.

Once the media gets wind of the cold-case investigations, things really explode. The real focus of this drama is the evolving relationships between these three characters. The film picks up the pace as it goes down its rabbit hole of confessions, sometimes taking Mads to the scene with hopes of recovering more memories. The murders go back 30 years, with the first committed when Mads was 14, so evidence is sparse and statutes of limitations apply. As the drama picks up, the tale and the characters grip us, as the actors build character depth and things get complicated. Like many Scandinavian crime series, all the characters in this story have their own complicated backstory and issues, and the film becomes more interesting and complex as it unravels the confessions and the cold-case murders. Motivations complicate matters, with all the three main characters having their own agendas, ambitions, and fears amid their deepening, complex relationships.

It is a strange, strange story and there is plenty of tension and twists, but the film has few of the gory details of the real Thomas Quick confessions. When we get the end of the drama, where there are more twists, we get the biggest shocks, some summarized in title cards at the end.

That the acting is superb is no surprise, given this cast. Each of the three principle actors are excellent, crafting multi-layered, complex characters, sometimes caught up in the juggernaut that the case becomes once it captures public attention. Gustaf Skarsgard’s performance is a standout, as he takes his character through the biggest transitions, going from a passive, frightened man who could easily be robbed, to an angry one with flashes of violence, to one with a growing sense of self-possession, in a well-crafted, chilling transformation. Father and son Stellan and Gustaf Skarsgard are terrific in their scenes together, but the real acting sparks fly in the scenes with Gustaf and Andrea Riseborough as the therapist, where the shifting dynamic between them is fascinating.

Director Ran Huang’s film fictionalized the true story so thoroughly that no one should view this drama as a summary of that strange case, but it does make for a fascinating psychological crime drama and strong showcase of fine acting by three very talented performers. The truth behind this odd case is still debated today, with various theories about it and accusations about cult-like manipulations, heavy medication, and who was using whom, in the events that unfolded around the confessions.

WHAT REMAINS opens Friday, June 21, in theaters and VOD.

RATING: 3 out of 4 stars