THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER September 9th, 2016 | By John Defore
An oddly delicate fable in which heartbreaking scenes of rejection sit alongside easy laughter, Johannes Nyholm's The Giant is among other things surely the strangest underdog sports movie of the year. Following a man with extreme deformities as he seeks belonging among players of petanque, the French bowling game, Nyholm occasionally breaks for cryptic fantasy scenes (starring the eponymous "giant") as colorful and enticing as the main narrative is dreary. Arthouse patrons should embrace this one-of-a-kind picture, the first feature for a director of celebrated short films.
Christian Andren plays Rikard, a Swede whose various afflictions aren't formally diagnosed but appear to include autism and the kind of elephantiasis that gave the "Elephant Man" his name: Enormous tumors obstruct his ears and one eye; whether for physical or mental reasons, he seems incapable of speech. (FX makeup by Love Larson and Eva von Bahr is so excellent, and Andren's physical performance so natural, that viewers will likely assume producers cast a man who actually suffers from this deformity.)
Rikard resides at a home for those with special needs, but he only lives when tossing the heavy steel "boules" of petanque. (He even practices the noisy sport in his room, to the dismay of neighbors.) When he is wounded on the practice court, though — one of a few occasions when Nyholm shocks us with sudden violence — Rikard is unfairly blamed for the accident and kicked off his team. It's for his own good, condescending teammates say.
Only bearish Roland (Johan Kylen) stands by Rikard, trying to cajole him out of his dejected mood. He insists that the two start their own petanque team — named "Zughi" after an amusingly confused debate in which Rikard attempts to speak — and compete in the Nordic Championship.
As they train, Roland delivers a bit of sports-metaphor wisdom — when you can't score, try to move the goal — while Bjorn Olsson's soundtrack whistles in the background, subtly evoking a Spaghetti Western standoff. As if Rikard weren't a team player but a boxer fighting his demons, Nyholm gives him a tremendous personal loss to overcome: He is for some reason estranged from his mother, seeing her here only in one memorably heartbreaking encounter.
The film spends most of its time in this realist mode, cutting to scenes of the giant in ways suggesting he's a fantasy Rikard turns to in moments of despair. We see through the giant's eyes as he lumbers through landscapes whose extravagant hues would entrance even Maxfield Parrish; only late in the film do we escape his POV and discover that he looks like Rikard.
As the picture moves toward its championship climax, eventually pitting the Zughi partners against a pair of boastful Danes, viewers may feel they've been steered into a more familiar kind of movie. But that's only temporarily the case, as Nyholm has a left turn or two mapped out. Weird and moving, its end is true to the strange world the filmmaker has created, in which a lonely and deformed man must be his own hero, in his own way.
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