‘Kamikaze’ Review: A Breakout Turn Gets HBO Max’s Melancholic Half-Hour Drama Off the GroundNovember 14, 2021
Before embarking on its eight-episode journey, be warned: “Kamikaze” is fixated on two of the ideas attached to its title you’re likely to think of first: death and flying. The HBO Max original series — the streamer’s first Danish-language original, as well as its first to be commissioned and produced in Europe — revolves around a young woman determined to end her life, in a way similar to how the rest of her family recently died, and opens with Julie (played with pensive purpose by newcomer Marie Reuther) attempting suicide by crashing a small plane in the desert.
For those who don’t balk at the dire central premise, what awaits is a thoughtful personal exploration via extravagant choices, an attuned, moving lead performance, and lots and lots of flying. “Kamikaze” may not be revelatory in its overarching story, but it moves with an assured pace (half-hour dramas are good) and appreciates the existential open-mindedness often elicited by cruising at 30,000 feet. When Julie isn’t pushing herself to the limit or distracted by an improbable fling, she’s forced to reflect on why she wants what she wants, and the series invites audiences to mull over their own priorities along with her.
When you first see Julie, she’s being thrown around a cockpit as the single-propeller aircraft craters into the sand. Sporting a buzzcut and an eyebrow tattoo that reads “pancake sirup” [sic], she eventually comes to in the middle of nowhere, upset she survived a crash she intended as the end. She finds a solar battery charger in the back of the broken plane, along with a few bottles of water, but she only uses the former, so as not to prolong her suffering.
From there, the ensuing episodes cross-cut between her current plight and flashbacks to explain how she got there. She uses her phone as a video diary (in a functional update to the book on which “Kamikaze” is based, “Muleum” by Erlend Loe, which is written as if it’s her acquired logbook), though selfie shots aren’t the only vantage point from which director Kaspar Munk captures her steady starvation. Julie doesn’t try to go anywhere because she doesn’t want to be saved; she sits in the broken cockpit, scales a nearby dune, and aimlessly flops under the wing for shade. Her lips become chapped, her skin darkens, and her eyes deaden, as the misery she sought slowly sinks her.
Marie Reuther in “Kamikaze”
Courtesy of HBO Max
Set a few months prior, the primary story offers quite the contrast. Julie remembers her life as “perfect,” a position that’s hard to argue: She has a warm, loving relationship with both parents and her older brother, Tom (Mads Reuther, who’s also Marie’s brother in real life). They live in a seaside mansion with a massive yard and fine furnishings. Julie even has more than 159,000 Instagram followers, who love her posts sporting high fashion and coveted makeup, but she has plenty of flesh-and-blood friends, too. They go out to brunches and throw fun parties, which is exactly what they’re in the middle of doing when Julie gets a devastating text message from her father: “We’re crashing. I love you. Do what you want. Dad”
Later that evening, she learns the trio’s trip (celebrating Tom’s completion of law school) never came to be, and the passenger plane crashed mid-flight. No cause is revealed and no bodies are found, but Julie is already too shocked to pay much mind to reports from the family lawyer and local law enforcement. She’s already obsessing over flight safety facts — “Most crashes happen within the same nine minutes of the flight: the first three minutes after takeoff, and the last six minutes of the landing, before the plane stops” — and planning her escape from a house filled with painful memories.
Soon, she’s hopping from plane to plane, jet-setting around the world on her (seemingly limitless) family credit card. Julie will book a flight and, before she even lands, use her phone to book another flight from the same airport to a new destination, so she can be back in the sky, hoping against hope for an unfortunate accident, without ever stepping into the real world. Even when she does, a kind of dream logic applies to her adventures, as if she’s only imagining what would happen if she pursued that mile-high thought. Certain moments are imagined, realized with a style and attitude befitting Julie’s determination, if not her fatalistic mindset.
Real or pretend, Marie Reuther elevates every scene. One of my favorite attributes of any actor is when they can lie convincingly without breaking character; that is, when their character has to lie to someone, and it plays truthfully in the scene. Actors should be great liars, but that doesn’t mean their characters are — or, as Laurence Olivier said, “What is acting but lying, and what is good lying but convincing lying?” Julie has to lie often. Whether it’s about who she is, where she’s going, or why she’s doing something, the grieving, angry 18-year-old knows she can’t tell the truth without inviting more questions or setting off alarm bells. (If you met a young woman on a flight who said she’s hoping it goes down in flames, would you keep that to yourself?) When faced with an anticipated question, her lies are smooth, but to the unexpected queries, to the people who see through her armored facade, Reuther exposes doubts, fears, and more abstract honesty within Julie’s quickly constructed fibs.
These moments provide valuable context because of what the actor brings to them, not just what’s in the script, and that’s true throughout. Even though Julie goes through a stark aesthetic transformation (her hair, her tattoo, her physical state), Reuther’s performance isn’t showy; it’s lived in, and she creates additional empathy for Julie, beyond the natural desire to see anyone in pain find a healthy path forward. (She’s also in almost every shot of the series, which requires its own attention to detail and layered character work.)
“Kamikaze” isn’t always smooth. Certain episodes work better than others, and the ending feels more like a suitable workaround than a profound resolution (or even a simple one that’s specific to Julie). It certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a boundary-pushing mid-flight experience without ever leaving the ground, this might be your ticket.
“Kamikaze” premieres Sunday, November 14 on HBO Max in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
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