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Film Review: Rams

Rams (Hrútar) (2015; Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)

Rams is a movie about family and sheep. Although the Icelandic rural drama was sold in the North American arthouse market with trailers playing up its quirky off-beat deadpan humour, this film is in truth deeply lonely and desperately sad (although there is one inspired dark-comic sequence that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling: a peculiar “ambulance” of the icy barrens). It’s a portrait of simmering, below-the-surface sibling rivalry and bruised, threatened masculinity pinned down to a vast landscape, with a symbolically-charged deadly sheep epidemic as a strong impetus for conflict, confrontation, loss, and healing.

In the rugged, forbiddingly beautiful countryside of Iceland, two estranged brothers and sheep-farmers tend to adjacent flocks of animals locally renowned for their quality. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) lives a solitary existence, the occasional strained chats with neighbours his sole form of companionship beyond his beloved sheep. His elder brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíussson) offers little succor despite living on the very next plot of land; their only interactions are conducted via Gummi’s written notes couriered by Kiddi’s dog, to which Kiddi replies with either stony silence or furious, drunken late-night assaults (Kiddi shoots out Gummi’s windows in one such inebriated rage, to which Gummi responds by stoically invoicing him for the repairs). Although Kiddi’s prized ram tops Gummi’s in a local competition, Gummi reveals to an officious visitor that their father did not think the choleric Kiddi was suited to shepherding the family flock, and thus left all the property and sheep in Gummi’s name.

The sting of this paternal judgement is the source of the brotherly enmity that has endured for 40 years (writer-director Grímur Hákonarson leads us to believe that Gummi’s envy of Kiddi’s finer sheep is the catalyst for the sundering before deftly pulling the later-act switch). The chilly distance between them, in spite of their proximity on the land, is visualized by an early shot of Gummi warily crossing the fence line between their plots to examine a dead sheep. The carcass is a portent of calamity for the brothers and the entire sheep-farming community in the remote valley, as is a troubling lethargy that Gummi also notes in Kiddi’s prize ram. The devastating virulence known as scrapie (basically mad cow disease for sheep) is found in the flock, necessitating a wholesale slaughter of all of the sheep in the valley as mandated by the national agricultural authorities.

While Kiddi rages against those authorities and refuses to cooperate, Gummi takes the painful task of slaughter into his own hands. Sigurjónsson’s shaken performance both before and after this bloody act is riveting, and its poignancy is only increased by the portrayal of the crushing loneliness of his life (his solo Christmas, dressed up in vest and tie, lighting candles, playing music, and eating a leg of lamb, is saturated with pathos), from which his adored sheep are his only relief. But his unauthorized cull (the authorities perform a sanitary slaughter of other flocks) only serves as a cover for a secret plan to preserve a small portion of his proud flock, his family heritage, for the future.

Without spoiling too much more, Gummi’s bold ruse will collapse the fences between himself and Kiddi in the dire straits of mutual necessity, and lead them to such lengths as to bring them as close as is humanly possible, symbolically conjoined twins in a womb of winter. The title also refers to the brothers as symbolic hard-headed rams, forever stubbornly butting skulls. Both of these symbolic linkages feed into Hákonarson’s dominant theme in the film: male anxiety, isolation, and impotence.

Both Gummi and Kiddi are unmarried (Kiddi had and lost a few women over the years, Gummi mentions, driven away by his cantankerous temperament) and childless, with no heirs to their humbly proud but gradually dying shepherding legacy, which the scrapie epidemic threatens to erase entirely. Their sense of masculine worth is tied up in their flocks, which are an inheritance from their father, along with their bitter, prolonged feud. Their battle of male egos is transmuted into their best rams, which compete to be the best in the valley (“The sheep intertwines with the farmer’s being,” a grandiose speech at the awards ceremony proclaims as a thematic guidepost). Even their sense of male sexual virility is poured into the animals: the crowning ritual of Gummi’s lonesome Christmas, a moment given a great ceremonial importance, involves freeing his ram and cheering him on to rut with the ewes and breed a new generation, which the old man himself cannot do.

Rams is no mere critique of these tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. It’s telling that only when literally everything else has been stripped away can the brothers accept and love each other, to comfort each other in tragic extremity. Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.

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