Rams (2015) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Sigurour Sigurjonsson, Theodor Juliusson, Charlotte Boving
Director: Grimur Hakonarson
Screenplay: Grimur Hakonarson
Review published March 25, 2016
The prize-winning Icelandic film Rams is a story featuring sheep farmers in northern Iceland that, literally, contains rams, but could also be seen as a metaphor for the stubborn head-butting that has gone on for decades between the two main characters of the film, brothers whose properties abut one another, but haven't really spoken to each other for about 40 years. We mostly follow the film from the perspective of mild-mannered Gummi (Sigurjonsson), who beams with pride on his stock of sheep, entering his ram into a local competition for the best example of good breeding. We see him narrowly losing the latest competition to his neighbor, estranged alcoholic and temperamental brother Kiddi (Juliusson), which leaves a bitter taste in Gummi's mouth not only for the loss, but mooreover, it's a loss to the man he most detests in this world.
During the aftermath, Gummi decides to inspect Kiddi's award-winning ram and is surprised to find it appears to be a little ill, perhaps showing signs of the dreaded scrapie, a contagious and ultimately fatal degenerative illness in sheep that affects their brains and nervous systems. He reports the incident to the local veterinary council, who immediately inspect the ram in question, raising the dander of Kiddi for the imposition, with the results leading to the slaughter of all of the sheep in the valley if true, with no possibility of new sheep farming for at least two years -- something that the prideful Kiddi will likely not take kindly to, especially as it is viewed as an act of jealousy and spite from his scornful brother.
Written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, Rams is an oddity of a film from outside appearances, but should play quite well for most audiences. It's about how familial bonds remain mercurial in their nature, with siblings yearning for closeness that doesn't seem to come easily, resulting in separation, bitterness, and longtime resentment that grow the chasm between the affected parties even more. In physical proximity, Gummi and Kiddi couldn't be closer, but how they live seems completely alien to each other, separated only by a road that is traversed by Kiddi's border collie, who is used to carry mostly passive-aggressive missives to one another. Mostly alone and isolated, their bonds with their flock of sheep is unusually strong, which would make the slaughter of them all a particular hardship upon them both if the scrapie diagnosis proves positive.
Because the dialogue is sparse, the casting of the actors is especially critical, as we have to intuit what's going on mostly through the facial expressions and body language of the performers. To Hakonarson's credit, he secures two excellent thespians in Sigurjonsson and Juliusson, two character actors who imbue their roles with rich texture, mixed emotions and a nuanced level of personal history. Like the Biblical Cain and Abel, whose downfall was predicated upon their sacrifices made or lack thereof, by contrast, the sacrifices made, or lack thereof, are just what might bring Gummi and Kiddi together. The locale work is also a big part of the storytelling, with the vast, picturesque expanses drawing out their isolation from the rest of society, and the cold winters further compounding the insular loneliness of having to be alone in the house with only their thoughts to dwell upon, perhaps rehashing in their minds the reasons to continue holding a grudge for decades.
Rams has a simple story, but it's told with a fair amount of depth and detail, allowing to draw upon several well-honed themes regarding family, pride, and the potential dying off of the last of the bloodlines. One wonders if the brothers are the only family they have left, which makes their estrangement especially tragic. Hakonarson's film also contains some nice surprises, good comedic moments underneath the drama, and observations about both sheep farming and human nature in general that say a great deal without the need to point out its themes in an ostentatious way. The small-scale story eventually leads to an ending that contains genuinely deep-rooted emotion for the characters we only observe for ninety minutes, reminding us that hate is not the antithesis or absence of love, but is often the stubborn avowed denial of it.
©2016 Vince Leo