Grimur Hakonarson’s Un Certain Regard-winning Rams is part dark comedy, part family drama about two elderly brothers who haven’t spoken in years. The gorgeous Icelandic landscape provides the backdrop to this story about sheep farming and family reconciliation.
In Grimur Hakonarson’s second feature, Rams, the elderly Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurdjonsson) and his brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), have been living on adjacent sheep farms in rural Iceland for their entire adult life. But they haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. When necessary, they communicate by sending each other rolled up dispatches, using Kiddi’s dog as a messenger.
We sense there’s some old rivalry between them as a local competition for best sheep finds Gummi in second place to Kiddi’s first, by only half a point, to his severe chagrin: Hakonarson emphasizes the hierarchy by having them stand on a Winner’s podium. What could have transpired to keep these two apart for so long, when living so close, in such a small place, is the film’s big mystery, but what starts out as intriguing proves disappointing when it’s not explored further.
The brothers’ peaceful existence of mutually ignoring one another is disturbed when Gummi suspects Kiddi’s winning sheep of being sick with scrapie, a fatal, incurable sheep disease. When word gets out, and an investigation ensues, the town votes to have all of the sheep in the brothers’ valley slaughtered to prevent further spread of the disease and hopefully eradicate it entirely.
The ever gruff, and often drunk Kiddi — he regularly passes out on the road, an especially dangerous past time in the winter — puts up a fight, refusing to comply, and blaming his brother. They have the sort of relationship where Kiddi can show up in the middle of the night with a shotgun, shoot a hole in Gummi’s bedroom window, and it’s not that big of a surprise. Meanwhile, Gummi glumly accepts his fate. Giving his flock of sheep a final farewell caress, Gummi decides to take their lives into his own hands, individually grabbing and shooting each, until he’s left with bloodied hands and a sullied conscience. It’s devastating to watch him break down in private.
As the film is told largely from Gummi’s perspective, we don’t get to see Kiddi wrestling with the same inner turmoil. But as his drunken incidents get more severe and more frequent, forcing Gummi to care for his estranged brother on more than one occasion, we wonder if the brothers may be more similar than they’d care to admit. Even with monetary compensation, losing their sheep is an unimaginable loss. Without their flocks to tend to, how will these two isolated bachelors find an excuse to continue ignoring one another? In such a remote place, how can they find purpose rather than fall into depression? Of course, Gummi’s quiet resignation belies his secret, an inability to let go that could get him in deep trouble — not a total surprise for someone still in a decades-long standoff with his brother. Yet what they both fear losing most may be the one thing that forces them to finally break their silence for a common goal.
Although what caused the rupture between the brothers is never explored, we do get glimpses at just how similar the two men are, even if Gummi’s sad eyes and resigned temperament seem so at odds with Kiddi’s confrontational manner. Idle hands are their greatest enemy: meticulously cleaning his barn after the slaughter is what keeps Gummi afloat while Kiddi drowns his troubles with alcohol. The sheep are their everything, and they both use the labour it takes to do so as an excuse to ignore each other. As the power dynamics between them shift and things get bleaker, it’s clear that what these men need most is each other. Because there’s so little of it, each piece of backstory is precious, but the film could have been more emotionally resonant had we learned more. As it is, it feels incomplete.
The green hills of rural Iceland serve as more than just eye candy in Grímur Hakonarson’s second feature “Rams.” At the beginning, when Gummi and Kiddi are seen tending to their beloved sheep, the landscape seems idyllic, full of green pastures and life. But an extreme longshot of Kiddi standing in front of his barn, with a towering hill behind him, once his sheep have been forcibly slaughtered, evokes despair and isolation: it makes him look very small. Seasonal change turns green pastures into icy, snowy treacherous terrain. It’s a reminder that grudges, like the people who hold them, must die eventually. It may be too late for the sheep, but Hakonarson slowly guides us toward a reconciliation between the brothers without ever dipping into sentimentality. Two stubborn men are forced to contend with their own mortality, and in quiet moments, we see the loss they both have experienced from their estrangement.
The magnificent Icelandic countryside has been drawing viewers to films with far less merit, like last year’s Land Ho!, or with a much bleaker, ironic outlook, like the wonderful Of Horses and Men. Although Rams never feels like nature porn, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s lensing is always stunning. By treating sheep farming as the most serious of affairs, Hakonarsen finds some absurdist comedy in the situation. He occasionally shoots the story like a thriller — Gummi tells a friend his clandestine suspicions about Kiddi’s sheep having scrapie in a darkened doorway as if out of a western — making the fate of these men’s flocks a high stakes matter. But there’s also a great tenderness for his characters, letting Gummi, especially, have quiet moments of strong emotions, so that it’s bittersweet ending feels entirely earned.