Thomas Gullestad is a revelation here in the WW II drama The 12th Man. It is a harrowing and gruelling film that never lets up or lets you out of its grip until the final scene—an underseen gem of a movie that fully deserves a chance.
Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) quickly flees into the merciless Norwegian winter with a bleeding gunshot wound and an SS Officer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) hot on his heels. His determination and will to survive will turn him into a symbol for the Norwegian resistance – a symbol people are willing to die for.
The 12th Man does not wait around in getting us into the thick of the action after a quick bit of text. We are thrown straight into the action as the Norwegian 12 are trying to get to land after their ship sinks. Bullets whizz by, and there is a beautiful handheld scene as we follow them to try to find a safe spot, with only Jan finding safety from the German army’s attack.
As the rest of his men are captured, the soaked Jan has to try and get away in the Norwegian landscape and Fjords, with only one shoe and missing a large toe after getting shot. From here on out, we are in a war of attrition as he swims, hides and is dragged his way through Norway to get himself to the Swedish border so he can relay the intelligence information he has to share.
The two hours run time flies through as we are rarely given a moment to sit and breathe. The closest moments we get to have a breather is when we are with the Germans as they either torture the captured men or try to work out if Jan could swim across the Fjord for 20 minutes and survive. The 12th Man never lets up, and when we are with the SS, there is a power battle going on with Stage and the man who fully believes Baalsrud to be dead, Frithjof Meyer Haugland. As the two share angry looks, you see that all is not what it seems with the Germans, and they are not the well-oiled machine they want to portray to the world and themselves.
By giving us these moments with the SS, we get to ease a little on the sheer tension of watching the ordeal that Baalsrud goes through. With each moment, you have to think that there is no way one man could get through this; for goodness sake, at one point, we watch him cut away the gangrene from his foot to relieve the pain. This film does not hold back on the gruesome, and the amount of damage he goes through almost puts The 12th Man as body horror. His sheer resilience is breathtaking, and if an ounce of truth is in this story, then Jan Baalsrud was one hell of a man.
As mentioned, there are many gruesome scenes here, be it the torture of the captured men and what is left behind from said torture. A wonderfully harrowing scene as Stage mews his next move as nuns attempt to clean up a blood-stained bed. Or any of what happens to our lead. (If this were a video review, there would be a nice little list of everything that happens to him and what it does to him). That personal worst was the after-effects of an avalanche and, of course, the final scenes as we see what 50 odd days of multiple near-death experiences do to a man. If there was the chance to do a split-screen of Jan at the beginning and how he is towards the end, then you would be genuinely shocked.
Now, there is one major gripe that I have with The 12th Man; in the prologue text that we are presented with, for some ungodly reason, we are told that not only does Jan survive, but that no one else does from his group. There is simply no need to say that, and for audiences (of which I can imagine there are lots) who do not know about the great man, we learn he makes it out alive and thus, for the first half, it sucks all of the tension out of the room. Not only do we lose our worries for our friends as we know their time is short, but we can also sit back and almost relax as Jan goes through those first challenges. The film has to work very hard to win us back from there (thankfully, it does), but by giving itself that first disadvantage, the film doesn’t land as well as it should.
Despite the horror that we see Jan go through, The 12th Man is a gorgeous looking film as we get lost in the whites of the Norwegian landscapes and see the harshness of the rocks underneath. When characters plunge into the ice-cold saltwater, we feel it, and when characters go through such torment, you either feel it with them, or you are disconnected from the sheer volume of pain. Here we feel every moment, and it is fantastic. Director Harald Zwart does some great work in his film, and for those who not fully aware, this is the same director who made the remake of The Karate Kid and Agent Cody Banks. He practically pulls off a George Miller-style range with this film.
The 12th Man is a gruelling experience, and for some unknown reason, it is not widely known by audiences. This is an excellent and gripping film that needs as many eyes on it as possible. There are no bad performances here, and with some fantastic visuals and cinematography from Geir Hartly Andreassen, we have a film that deserves to be watched. So do not hesitate and correct the wrong if you have not watched it, and even if you have, give it a rewatch—an all-around stunning film.
Signature Entertainment presents The 12th Man on Amazon Prime Video now.
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