In Rams, writer-director Grímur Hákonarson mixes drollness and pathos with commanding matter-of-factness. The narrative is so inherently poignant that Hákonarson understands it requires a dry directorial counterpoint, which he provides in the guise of initially misleading authorial distance. A documentary filmmaker making his fictional feature debut, Hákonarson structures Rams with a sense of restriction that’s similar to that of certain documentaries, as if only some gestures could be captured within this rural Icelandic setting. There’s little exposition, though one’s given what they’re needed to orient themselves, as characters are observationally shown, at length, to engage in the processes that define their lives, particularly farming, sheep competitions, and tormented drinking.
Rams is an austere and lonely film, at times suggesting the result that may arise from re-editing The Turin Horse into a compact quasi-comedic thriller. Two sheep farmers assume the center stage of the story, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), upper-middle-aged brothers who each farm their own half of the same vast plot of family land, somehow without speaking to one another for the last 40 years. In a typically succinct bit of physicality that serves as character portraiture, Gummi finds an injured ram on Kiddi’s side of the property, drives it up to his brother’s home and points with deliberate sharpness down toward the area where he found the animal. The purposeful angularity of Gummi’s pointing entirely encapsulating their decades spent in united apartness.
Gummi and Kiddi are the sort of men for whom the phrase “salt of the Earth” was coined: stout, capable, burly, probably not given to much contemplation of self. The story of their animosity toward one another is aired by supporting characters rather than the men themselves, though their longing and uncertainty manifests itself in the tenderness they exhibit toward their rams. The way the men grasp the rams’ horns, with simultaneous love and power, is particularly haunting. With his long face, Gummi even resembles a ram, fleetingly, in certain images that show him nested closely with his creatures, governing and empathizing with them in intermingling fashions. The brothers have adopted their prize-winning legacy rams in a fashion that mirrors our relationships with all our pets: as safe, unquestioning receivers of our love.
Anecdotes gradually differentiate Gummi and Kiddi. Gummi is the more thoughtful and pacifistic of the two, while Kiddi is a hard drinker given to raging at Gummi in the middle of the night. In a striking tableau, we glimpse Kiddi in the background, outside, with Gummi’s bedroom in the foreground. When Kiddi points a rifle into Gummi’s room, he appears to be aiming it at us, the gunshot splintering a window that serves as a frame within a frame. Rather than raging back at him, Gummi simply, comically, sends Kiddi an invoice for the broken windows after fixing them. And after his brother passes out outside from another drunken all-nighter, which is dangerous in the cold of this wilderness, Gummi uses a bulldozer to lift the massive Kiddi up and take him to the local hospital. This sequence is staged with an unquantifiable kind of tough-tenderness that’s reminiscent of the films of Bill Forsyth.
Every moment in Hákonarson’s strange and wonderful film is imbued with mystery and revealing dignity. Gummi cooking a Christmas dinner for one, his special treat apparently a can of Coke, is almost too heartbreaking to contemplate. Intensifying the resonance of this scene is Gummi’s palpable enjoyment of the meal; this is a man used to inhabiting his orbit alone, deep in his mind, whether he’s eating dinner or assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Of course, Rams is a redemption story, and, of course, these brothers soon find themselves uniting after a long divide. But Hákonarson emphasizes the costs—and even the treasures—of that long divide, rather than the ambiguous, cathartic reward of its eventual dissolution.