The science of determining paternity may now be exact, but the meaning of fatherhood remains as vague as ever. So goes the refrain of Aberdeen, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s overwrought but ultimately moving melodrama of family trauma and reconciliation. Moving because of the performances: not since Bruno Ganz has an actor fulfilled the role of existential Everyman as redolently as Stellan Skarsgård, who here finds relief in sullen dipsomania as Tomas, a Norwegian dreamer, former oil-rig worker (shades of Breaking the Waves), and barfly. Until, that is, his estranged daughter, Kaisa, comes to fetch him and bring him back to Scotland to see her mother, Helen (Charlotte Rampling, wasted except for a few scenes on the phone), before she dies of cancer.
Played with a rueful, crooked smile and a flinty vulnerability by Lena Headey, Kaisa is a chip off the old block, a career- and coke- addicted desperado whose unhappy relationship with her father left her apparently incapable of love. Neither does she seem likely to work out any of these issues (including a wearily requisite incest subplot) as she escorts her sodden dad via plane, ferry, and automobile in a race to beat the Reaper back to Aberdeen, dodging along the way such obstacles as snippy flight attendants, street bullies, and heartless cops while bonding briefly with Clive (Ian Hart), a kindly truck driver who quickly regrets getting involved in this particular gene pool. Aberdeen figures to be contrived and manipulative, and it often is, but between bouts of pissing on himself and vomiting on Kaisa’s lap, Skarsgård shows that he knows fathers best.