Film can be a very strange place sometimes. When you brush away the more traditional forms and the blockbusters, you can find films that have an unusual flavour, taking on unexpected topics and giving them time and consideration they normally wouldn’t. This is certainly the case with ‘Rams’, the latest film from Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson. In it, we’re given a view into sheep farming in a remote Icelandic valley, where the entire community depends on the livelihood of breeding lines that have existed for hundreds of years. It’s a cool topic and a strangely fascinating one, but does that translate into a satisfying film?
‘Rams’ focuses on two estranged brothers, both sheep farmers, who live next to one another. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is quiet and lonely, while his older brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) is far more obnoxious and gregarious. They haven’t spoken for decades, but when a deadly infection forces the community to put down their entire flocks, Gummi hatches a plan to keep his precious flock from extermination - a plan that could succeed or fail depending on Kiddi’s involvement.
The central premise is a quirky one, but Hákonarson approaches both the screenplay and the filmmaking with almost documentary austereness. It’s practically a silent film, relying instead on the volumes expressed in Gummi’s face. It’s a beautifully shot film, eating up the remote and unforgiving Icelandic landscape, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen capturing its power and ferocity. There’s not a frame in ‘Rams’ that isn’t a delight to look at, but what it makes up for in visuals, it lacks in rhythm and tone. It moves at a glacial pace, each movement of the narrative, camera and characters carefully considered. This could have been an advantage, but while the film moves between absurdist comedy and deep tragedy, it doesn’t make that transition easily. For most of its duration it’s a dour film, especially when you see the effects the extermination has on the community emotionally. Again, this could have been very powerful, but by not choosing a consistent tone or handling its opposing tones carefully, ‘Rams’ is hard to connect to. There are moments of comedy, but they are few and far between, and their infrequency means they either don’t have the punch they should or feel inappropriate against the more serious material. There are moments in ‘Rams’ that are genuinely moving and very sad, but they don’t feel well-placed, and the characters exist in such an unendingly glum oppression that as an audience member, it’s difficult to find your way in. It’s a pity, because the material suggests that there could be something here that could blossom beautifully without sacrificing the austere and considered artistic intent. No one would want this to descend into some sort of Hollywood quirky cliché, but for a film about livelihood, it doesn’t seem to have much life in it.
The central performance from Sigurður Sigurjónsson is quite beautiful, with Gummi a careful balance between incredibly old and incredibly young. The interaction between the brothers is like that of two children, and Gummi is forced into the position of being the patient, considerate one, often taking care of his brother against his brother’s will. As I said, much of Sigurjónsson’s performance is through his face, and so much comes across in every crease and every movement of his eyes. We don’t know much about the history behind these men, but the weight of it on their bodies tells us enough. Theodór Júlíusson is a wonderful counterbalance to Sigurjónsson, Kiddi an enormous, petulant yet needy figure, the monster at the end of the driveway that’s just as lost and broken without his flock to define his existence. There are few moments of interaction between the two actors, and yet there’s an indelible connection with them. What little heart ‘Rams’ has comes from that relationship, and the film is all the better for it.
There’s not a frame in ‘Rams’ that isn’t a delight to look at, but what it makes up for in visuals, it lacks in rhythm and tone.
There’s no question that ‘Rams’ is an accomplished piece of filmmaking, beautifully shot and clear in its intent. The tonal and rhythmic problems I found with it are no doubt intentional, and Grímur Hákonarson has still delivered an impressive film. However, for all its accomplishments, it’s a hard film to love, glum and impenetrable with little light or shade. It does give us a window into this unique world, one that works to its own set of values and rules, but it’s a window of stark reality that isn’t always the most thrilling to look through. The film has received accolades around the world - including the top prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes - so it may just be that I found it hard to connect with where others have found it far easier. It’s certainly a unique curiosity of a film, and one that deserves attention.