The problem with Tomas, the now-disgraced husband and father who ran away from approaching danger and abandoned his family in Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure, is not that he was scared. Everyone was scared; his wife, Ebba, his children, Vera and Harry, were all scared. They were panic-stricken and terrified; they all reacted in instinctive, unthinking ways. Everyone ran for cover. Tomas’ instincts didn’t include taking care of his family, of course, but that is not an unforgivable crime. Perhaps that ‘instinct’ could still be instilled in him. After all, many a military leader has found that the men he commands are petrified of bullets and run around like headless chickens when shots first ring out; bravery does not come naturally to us; we have to be trained to be instinctively brave.
No, the problem with Tomas is that the selfishness on display in that act of running away from his family appears to be persistent and fundamental.
In the aftermath of his sauve qui peut moment, Tomas resolutely refuses to face up to the fact that his wife experienced his abandonment as, er, abandonment, that he left her alone with their two terrified children, that his actions might have been experienced as painful, disappointing and distrust-inducing. Instead, he is defensive and obfuscatory; he speaks of alternative interpretations of the same event; he suggests his wife’s reactions are misplaced; he does not address his children’s felt needs; he meets his wife’s disappointment and anger with a pushback of his own. He does not realize his wife is ready to forgive him if only he would admit that he had hurt her and their children.
Everything, you see, is about Tomas.
Nothing confirms this quite as well as his tearful, hysterical breakdown during which he admits his guilt to his wife and descends into a paroxysm of crying and self-flagellation. For as he sobs and sobs, plaintively and painfully, you realize, along with Ebba, that he has turned the disaster that has befallen their family into solely a personal disaster. He is upset; he is scared; he has lost the carefully constructed aura of masculine strength and patriarchal togetherness that was previously his. But he is still too selfish to tend to his family, even in this moment. Instead, he now turns all the attention to himself with his bawling. His tears are manipulative; they are meant to stop Ebba’s anger and her dismay and turn them into forgiveness for himself, without him ever having faced up to the consequences of his actions. Soon, his children come running into the room, hearing their father crying. They are stunned and appalled; they instinctively turn to comfort him. Tomas is inconsolable and remains so; the children want their mother–who has figured out the manipulation under way in front of her–to join them. As her children call to her to join them in their comforting of their father, Ebba resists; she knows that the spotlight has been turned, away from their reactions to the incident, to Tomas, who having never addressed them, has made his running away from the avalanche all about himself, his pain, and his suffering.
That is the final insult added to injury.