Film of the week: Rams

A “minor classic”, Grímur Hákonarson’s effortlessly gripping shaggy sheep-farmer drama pits brother against brother against market calamity.

Trevor Johnston

In one widescreen frame in Rams, we see two sheep farms stretching side by side across a gently sloping valley, the properties divided in the middle by a road heading straight towards the camera position. The poised symmetry of the composition is almost too good to be true, but this is rural Iceland, where sheep farming is a traditional component of the local economy, so there’s every reason to believe it’s a real location.

That tension between authenticity and contrivance is absolutely at the heart of Grímur Hákonarson’s second narrative feature, which takes the evident dramatic construct of two brothers who are neighbours, rival sheep breeders and – most significantly – haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years (for reasons the film takes its time revealing) and sets it against the plight of a very real farming community whose pride in its sheep stock proves no protection against today’s tough market realities.

The antics of the warring siblings play out as a sort of bitter comedy, especially when one very clever collie is pressed into service to carry letters between the two when they have no choice but to communicate with one another. However, the crisis that brings this to pass is only too serious: the presence of scrapie in the ram that has just won best-in-show for Theodór Júlíusson’s Kiddi (the embittered, hard-drinking, slightly unhinged brother), prompting Sigurdur Sigurjónsson’s seemingly more responsible Gummi to sound the alarm and bring in ministry vets to slaughter all the sheep in the area. Suddenly, the fraternal friction is set in a wider context in which livelihoods and maybe even lives are at risk, and Hákonarson’s Un Certain Regard prizewinner sustains the tension supplied by those escalating stakes while never sacrificing the story’s in-built wit and quirkiness.

Rams (Hrútar, 2015)

Events move with such a smoothly inevitable logic that the film’s trajectory appears almost effortless, making it easy to miss the skilled craft shaping the director’s screenplay. Of course, there’s something endearing about the woolly capriciousness of the sheep themselves, somehow loveably benign yet exasperatingly stubborn, and fortunately that engaging charm extends to the two central characters, with Kiddi’s utterly unrepentant orneriness only bringing out Gummi’s clear-headed decency – and the latter’s anti-establishment streak makes him even more of an audience favourite.

To find another film whose straightforward, almost homespun simplicity masks a director in truly confident control of his material you’d probably have to go back to David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). While the subject matter is very different here, Hákonarson’s achievement, like Lynch’s before him, is ultimately to leave us with a sense that universal themes are thrumming though an extremely localised and specific scenario. In the case of Rams, you won’t spot it coming, but fate, circumstances and brilliant filmmaking deliver a final image that not only sets individual conflict within the broader realm of human brotherhood but somehow also prompts a surge of emotion from an outcome on the very tipping-point of exquisite uncertainty. A minor classic, no less.

Rams (Hrútar, 2015)

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