Film is at its best when allowing the audience to emotionally connect with a subject. Whether we’re laughing with them, crying with them or shivering in fear with them, a good filmmaker helps us to relate and empathize with a character. A great director can make us a care for characters wildly outside our realm of understanding, and Grímur Hákonarson may have proven himself such a director with his latest film, Rams. The narrative takes us into the farmlands of Iceland, where we follow two estranged brothers, sheep farmers competing with each other for the best herd. When a horrifying disease comes along that could mean the end of their livelihood, the two must band together, or fail together, to keep themselves on top.
In reality, the fate of a group of sheep shouldn’t matter. They’re just a flock of stupid, dirty animals, who, in the film, are being put down for the good of the community. However, Rams makes us care. Much of it comes from the way Hákonarson shoots this landscape. The gorgeous shots of grey islandic skies and vast empty fields remind us that these people have nothing else: these sheep are their lives. The personal relationship between these sheep and their shepherds is obvious, as the shepherds even wash them in their own bathtubs, and a flock of sheep is enough to tear the two brothers apart. It’s also the thing that finally may bring these brothers together, and it’s what makes the film’s finale so shocking.
Our concern for these sheep is also informed, in no small part, by the way our lead actor looks at these rams. Sigurður Sigurjónsson’s face is a gorgeous museum of sadnesses in his performance as sheep farmer Gummi, from the shock of learning that his sheep must be killed to the grim look as his beloved flock is poured into an open grave… even to his blank, horrifying stare that occurs near the film’s conclusion (which I wouldn’t dare spoil here). He’s a man who’s lost his whole world, who is grasping tenuously onto a hope while the world continuously greases the rope. It’s a subtle but powerful performance, where a small spark of light in the eyes means the world to us, and where, with the slightest widening of his glance, we can hear the chimes of doom ringing.
Theodór Júlíusson, as Gummi’s estranged brother Kiddi, carries his sorrow in a different way: destructively. Throughout the piece, we see him, more often than not, drunk out of his mind, roaring out against a world that has betrayed him. Gunshots are fired, houses are broken into, and in parts of the film, one may wonder if things won’t turn violent. He’s also the source of many of the film’s funniest segments, as his tendency to pass out in the snow leads to some hilarious sight gags, the best of which involves a front-end loader and a hospital.
Rams is a small, intimate film, following the travails of a group of people that many will find difficult to relate to. For many of us, it gives us a look at a lifestyle we would never know otherwise, where just one bad season, one dead goat, could mean the end of one’s way of life. Its power doesn’t come from earth-shattering stakes, but incredibly personal ones… stakes that, thanks to Hakonarson’s sensitive filmmaking, matter so much by film’s end.
Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.