One of the most profound of human actions is considering whether to live or take one’s life. It is an immensely personal decision and for those family who are left behind to pick up the pieces, the question always remains why was this act necessary? Wasn’t there hope? Wasn’t there help? The film Bridgend, in its North American Premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, a part of the World Narrative Competition, answers these questions and the result is terrifying.
Based on true events which have occurred in the Welsh county borough of Bridgend, writers Jeppe Ronde, Torben Bech and Peter Asmussen have conceived a macabre, chilling story about teenagers and young people who one by one take their own lives leaving no suicide notes, no clues or manifest reasons how or why they came to their decisions. As we watch in anticipation and fear, we can only surmise which teenager might be next and we are always shocked at the outcome.
The director Ronde with the assistance of cinematographer Magnus Jonck captures and evokes the spirits of darkness which hover then engulf the minds of the teenagers. We watch horrified and like the characters, cannot help but try to determine what in this chaos of death makes sense to stop the killings. The filmmakers accomplish intrigue and suspense with low lighting, shadow profiles, and shots of ebony forests and hills, a small lake that is desolate and darkly surrounded by trees, the rapidly passing darkly backlit evening clouds to indicate passage of time, a desolate railroad track leading into a dark haunted forest beyond and a ranging German shepherd who stumbles upon the bodies of the dead teens who have hanged themselves. The music which scores these scenes adds a chilling texture to convey the threatening otherworldly forces beckoning the young men and women.
The subterranean evil which harkens the soul abyss in such representative, spooky and doomed landscapes gains mythic proportions in our psyches because it reflects symbols found deep within our unconscious. It is these mystery-laden shots, these mystical and mythic symbols of supernatural power that are contrasted with the mundane, sterile, industrial-looking, working-class houses populated by adults and families whose souls have long been deadened by hopelessness, emptiness and boredom. The contrasts between the day shots of the oblique town and its people with the darkness and the frightening atmospheric terrain of the forest and lake are what drive the film’s backdrops and themes and provide the grist to stamp the characterizations.
The filmmakers contrast the town and the forest and show how they represent two types of wickedness. They guide the audience to draw upon both to determine the mystery behind the rash of teens suicides in Bridgend. The bland, uninviting, puerile images of the seedy home interiors and bleak outer structures represent a type of banality, a hackneyed yet harmful evil. Indeed, one of the themes of the film is that such vapid emptiness is deadening and even more treacherous than the potentially supernatural dark spirits of the forest/lake area which hold the idea that life’s meanings are filled with incredible wonder even if it is the wonder of the horrible. With cinematic brilliance, Ronde displaces the lifestyle of the kids’ “every day” benign lives in school and with their parents, and makes it appear malevolent in its very absence of vitality, interest or joy. The town’s parents have been drained of their vibrant love of life and they form another stark contrast to the teenagers who band together and seek camaraderie, thrills and fun to make meaning which is absent in their parents’ lives. The evil of mundane mediocrity is a counterpoint to supernal evil. The filmmakers have cleverly combined these two elements to create a terrifying and alluring substrata from which these teens cannot escape, until finally they embrace what is most entrancing in the forest, each others’ deaths and the imaginative seduction of what happens afterward.
The film begins when Sara’s father Dave (Steven Waddington), brings Sara (Hannah Murray), to their new residence in Bridgend. Her father is an investigator assigned to the teen suicides. Sara, the new girl in town gradually joins a wild and adventurous group of teens whose cultish and ritualistic behaviors take them into the forest where they strip and baptize themselves in the cool lake then float on their backs as if in a state of suspension between life and death. They perform this and other weird, spooky actions which we come to realize are coded preludes to death, foreshadowing that a member of their group will commit suicide by hanging themselves. Though we expect it, filmmakers still shock us when a teen kills himself and the hanging body is found in the misty forest by the ranging shepherd who cannily snifs the environs for the corpse’s scent. After the body is found, the scene shifts to the virtual world of a secret online chat room and we note how the teens mask their real names and relate innocuous messages which may be coded, but which ultimately remain opaque and mysterious. Online, the teens say goodbye to the one who killed himself. The pattern repeats with both females and males and we are left to wonder why this is happening and, as the entire village wonders, who if anyone is next.
When Sara sees her father making clandestine love to his girlfriend, she is annoyed and distances herself from him; with greater fervency she seeks out the group for solace, eventually accepting their wild behaviors though she doesn’t participate initially and is a voyeur. As her estrangement from her father grows and her relationship with him frosts, she fully engages with the group’s cult-like practices. Swept up with the rituals she is fascinated and lured. As part of the bonding ritual, she falls in love with Jamie (Josh O’Connor). Her father, unable to figure out rhyme or reason for the suicides grows frustrated when a parent blames him indirectly for doing nothing to stop her son’s death. Afraid of this truth, the investigator’s eyes are opened and he realizes he has lost Sara who has become recalcitrant and rebellious. As a father he has changed as well, though he doesn’t understand that he contributes to their relationship deteriorating; his parenting skills are weak, he is neglectful of her and his supervision which has been lax reverts to panicked tyranny. This pushes Sara completely into the group where she submerges her personality and identity. Sara’s father has become representative of one of the deadened parents whose vitality, love and closeness with their children are completely absent.
As the body count rises and Dave is accused of not “doing his job,” Sara avidly joins the group’s occult rituals. She could help her dad solve the suicides for she has the arcane information he needs, but his autocratic manner and abruptness make him the last person she would confide in. When he threatens her not to see Jamie, she defies him. The tensions heighten when Jamie stumbles upon Sara and another teen and believes they were intimate; Jamie shuns her and proclaims he will “go out of town,” code for joining those who have entered the netherworld. We have come to like this endearing Jamie because of his sensitivity and because he was wrongfully abused by the other cult members. So when he breaks off with Sara, we become frightened that either he or she will add themselves to the growing body count of kids who hang themselves from a tree in the dark, shadowy forest, and end up the subject of private chat room conversations with messages like, “They are happier now.”
For his first feature, Ronde has chosen a compelling subject based upon true events. He manages to sustain the suspense throughout creating a Gothic and darkly mythic story whose facts still haunt to this day: the suicides in Bridgend continue unexplained. They number to almost 80 and a predominance of the suicides have been by hanging. The media has stopped reporting on the story for fear of copy cats.
Ronde carries the Welsh suicides to its logical finality in Bridgend. He includes vital points which serve as clues to what might be happening. For the teens in the film, death’s borne is a form of adventure. The thoughts of suicide include the thrill of moving to the edge of the abyss then plunging over to discover the revelation. Importantly, they control with fascination their bonded members from the “beyond” having raised questions for parents and teens by not providing suicide notes or easy explanations as to why they made the decision to die.
But Ronde supplies the formula and ritualistic pattern. He reveals in each instance how going on this suicide journey empowers. In effect the suicided teen is mentoring the others to eventually dare to follow suit. The excitement and suspense of “who will do it next” for them is less of an evil than their parent’s empty existence as non identities. The teens who have bonded in rituals leading up to the eventual suicide from a daring group member who has “gone over” is much more engaging then the every day terror of the every day, of living a life of “quiet, boring desolation,” the boring routines, family disunity, absent, neglectful, undemonstrative parents on the dole, whose purpose and dreams life has sucked dry. The wonder of suicide counteracts the drudgery of school, the desert coursework which has nothing meaningful for them to relate to. Ritual strengthens them to take life, for life in Bridgend is not a life worth living. Better to be dead.
Bridgend is a compelling and eerie film with magnificent lighting, cinematography and editing. The shocking aftereffects remain with one long after the lights come up for though there is no explanation why in the bloom of youth, the young select death, the macabre, the terrifying, we do see how they would select the afterlife over the death of life. Ronde’s work shines for he provides logical answers and he punctuates them with the tonal majesty of the mysterious, dark and unconscious yearnings of an alluring afterlife juxtaposed against the nullifying, drained deadened state of adulthood whose sameness and routines hold nothing alive or passionate to care about. The contrast of these realms is thrilling because Ronde and his team have captured the atmosphere and substance of both. And both are terrifying.
Bridgend filmmakers and an actor walked away with three Tribeca Audience Awards. Hannah Murray won the Best Actress Award for Narrative Feature, and the film garnered awards for Best Cinematography and Best Editing for a Narrative Feature. Ronde selected his filmmakers wisely and cast well and this ensemble contributed to bringing the haunting and frightening elements together beautifully. Bridgend is a compelling film that should not be missed.