In a remote Icelandic farming valley, feuding brothers who haven't spoken in 40 years have to cooperate to save their sheep and their livelihoods from a lethal outbreak in this dryly comedic film.
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.
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.
Trevor Johnston, Sight and Sound, 4th February 2016.
In a secluded Icelandic valley, estranged brothers Gummi and Kiddi are warring neighbours, competing with each other for the best ram prize that has become a symbol of their family feud. But when the spectre of the fatal scrapie disease threatens their remote farms, both brothers are faced with the prospect of a cull. Can these long-term enemies find common purpose when their ancestral stock and way of life are threatened?
“Beyond farming, there is something special about sheep,” says writer-director Grímur Hákonarson, adding: “Most farmers I know have a stronger connection to sheep than to other domesticated animals.” This will ring true with anyone who saw Magali Pettier’s eye-opening British documentary Addicted to Sheep, to which this darkly comedic drama, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, provides a deadpan Nordic riposte.
Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson are utterly convincing as the battling brothers whose alienation is expressed more through morosely bearded gesture than drunken buckshot dialogue. There’s real pathos in the possible loss of the pair’s livelihood, an emotion intensified by Hákonarson’s positioning of these antiheroes as men out of time, the last vestiges of an all-but-obsolete way of life. A wonderfully minimalist wheezing score by Atli Örvarsson lends a mournful solemnity to the proceedings, perfectly accompanying cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s imposingly chilly vistas.
Mark Kermode, The Observer, 7th February 2016.
When you describe "Rams" to someone who hasn't seen it, it sounds like you're making it up as a means of kidding art-house movies and film festival fare: two brothers who haven't spoken in 40 years feud over rams in rural Iceland. On top of that, writer-director Grímur Hákonarson's feature is done in a style that film professors would call "austere," most likely in discussions of a filmmaker like Robert Bresson. It's shot in widescreen, with striking compositional use of sky, land, rooftops and fences, often in long-ish takes that give you time to register the crunch-crunch of boots over snow, the baa-ing of sheep, the whisper of wind over the mountains and the like. The film prefers to observe Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjónsson), his older brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) and their neighbors going about their business without a lot of expository dialogue. An entire scene might consist of a bearded man (which doesn't narrow things down, as nearly all the men in this film are bearded) wandering into a dimly lit stable and inspecting a sheep's fur.
And yet "Rams" is an involving, at times curiously exciting film, because the story is so clean and simple and we always know what's at stake. We never find out exactly what caused Gummi and Kiddi to stop speaking to each other, but we know it must have been bad (or maybe they're just stubborn) because they live on adjacent farms, see each other ever day and raise sheep descended from the same ancient bloodline but never exchange a word.
Dormant resentment awakens when Kiddi wins second place in a yearly livestock competition. Gummi discovers, during an unauthorized inspection meant to disqualify his brother's win, that Kiddi's prize ram might have scrapie (BSE), a contagious and incurable virus along the lines of Mad Cow Disease that requires all the livestock in a region to be destroyed. This crisis unexpectedly drives the brothers back together again, though not in the orderly and predictable way you might expect. The inherently heartwarming nature of this tale of an icy feud thawing is undercut by the filmmakers' detached, at times anthropologically exact way of presenting the characters and their way of life. You spend a rather long time during this movie simply watching characters exist. That's something mainstream American films almost never do, and there's something quietly riveting about it, provided you can adjust to the film's slowed-down, 19th century rhythms.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Roger Ebert.com, 3rd February 2016.
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Total Number of Responses: 8
Film Score (0-5): 3.88
"Not just a film of stubborn men with big beards! Remoteness and solitude at its core, typical of Iceland, a mix of darkness and light citing independence and isolation. Then add themes of love and hate two main characters as intriguing as the film, their parts are played well. A contrast to the weather's biting cold, metaphoric maybe for the bitterness in the brothers' relationship. It's also believable, witty and memorable for the bleakness of scenery, the letter writing communications via a bright lively dog and from a shotgun, then with a tractor drive to hospital. Hiding sheep in the basement to prevent the slaughter of a heritage bloodline seems pretty sensible, but it can't last. Tragedy finally pulls them together in a blinding storm, no longer Cain and Able. I still want to know what happened to the sheep – and the dog!"
"I was thoroughly expecting a last gasp escape and a heartwarming happy ending here in keeping with the gentle, mildly humorous film's tone. The fact that that is not the case makes it a more powerful and honest film and forces the viewer to look back at what they've seen in a different light. The bleak landscape, equally bleak soundtrack and the hard scrabble existence of the oddball, individualist sheep farmer all convince (I am very familiar with their West Highland equivalents)."
"Excellent observation of the bleak lives of Icelandic sheep farmers and what lengths the feuding brothers were willing to go to to preserve their beloved stock. We enjoyed the low key humour and sense of suspense that was maintained to the bitter end."
"I enjoyed it and I think it is one of those films that you remember because it was beautifully filmed and observed. Not sure it was a comedy though-I suppose there are fewer subjects for a laugh in Iceland! Quaint and quirky."
"Found this one difficult to get into and rather too slow paced, not helped by the rather grim subject matter! Still, it had its moments and the sudden ending left me thinking about the film afterwards and what the likely outcome was for the brothers, their sheep and lovely dog. Thanks."
"An enjoyable description of an amazingly restricted life as a sheep breeder in rural Iceland and the futility of long held grudges. And I felt very cold at the end."