5 June 2016 | pyrocitor
Shear fascinating enigma (or: an impassive, primal baaaaaaallad)
You don't have to have been to Iceland to appreciate Rams, but it certainly helps explicate the film's grizzled, deadpan sense of humour, or the mysterious, beguiling power resonating from their vast, otherworldly landscapes. Writer/director Grímur Hákonarson crafts a skeletally simple tale of a community of farmers caring for their sheep whose livelihood is threatened by an outbreak of Scrapie, and employs it as a parable for changing with the times, or the creative, belligerent lengths some will go to to avoid doing so.
Framed against the unyielding, jaw-dropping vistas of the Icelandic countryside, the (unexplained) conflict between the central two farmers, the spectacularly named Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), feels equally mythic and etched in fiery stone, with all communication done by note, or the occasional drunken gunshot. It's sometimes difficult to tell what's meant to be funny or sombre in their antics in coping with their isolation and the pending slaughter of their sheep, but Hákonarson embraces the intersection, allowing their impassive, tentative emotional ambiguity and unapologetic wackiness to tease out the tension between amusingly petulant actions and the hard life that's spawned them.
In fact, the film's main criticism is an increasing suspicion that the awe-inspiring impassivity of its stony plains and narrative alike overly inflates the sense of profundity therein. There's a primal elegance to the simplicity of Rams, but its scenario and central conflict are somewhat too familiar to not supplant with further scripting or characterization. Hákonarson's glacial pace, at first hypnotic and appropriate for the unyielding consistency of the farmers, becomes restless over time, making the film begin to feel sleepier when it should evidence an elegiac crescendo. Things perk up with a stormy and unexpectedly tender climax, but there's a larger breadth of untapped subtext which leaves the film feeling thoroughly pleasant, but flimsier than it should amidst such steadfast a landscape.
If nothing else, the film should be commended for the abilities of its cast to convey so much largely through solemn staring into the distance. Sigurður Sigurjónsson brings a craggy affability to protagonist Gummi, the crinkles of affection crawling across his normally desolate features as he caresses the wool of his prized sheep making it all the more moving as he comes to terms with the heartbreaking of their pending slaughter. As the crabbier estranged brother, Theodór Júlíusson tempers comedic blustering and haphazard nudity with an undercurrent of real hurt and loss. Both are so odd it's easy to understand how they'd connect so much easier with their sheep, but also the ferocious indignation with which they'll protect not only their individual animals, but their livelihood, lifestyle, and family legacy.
Rams, in its deliberate primal simplicity, may not offer all the answers to the questions it evokes, but in the hands of such raw,capable performers and the stunning, plaintive Icelandic vistas that Hákonarson films with such reverence, it's a deceptively engaging curiosity, and one worth weathering alongside its farmers. Just keep your clothes on, if at a public screening.