Rams: Don’t Get Left Behind, by David Bax
Using a cold, hard, Icelandic winter in a community of sheepherders to tell the story of two bitterly estranged brothers, Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams employs big, powerful and effective metaphors to illustrate the psychic landscape of its lead and his intractable, hard-drinking brother. Wisely, Hákonarson complements his oppressive setting and doleful characters with a lacing of grim, dry humor.
In the opening scenes, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) barely misses winning a contest wherein rams are judged like show dogs. The animal that earns the blue ribbon belongs to Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), Gummi’s brother. Seething with envy, Gummi decides to inspect the prize-winning ram on his own and discovers symptoms of a rare but deadly and, among sheep, fiercely contagious disease. Authorities are summoned and conclude that it is in the best interests of Iceland’s agriculture industry for every sheep in the valley to be destroyed. This upends the lives of Gummi, Kiddi and all of their many neighbors. But it also means that, no longer occupied by routine, the two brothers have little else to distract them from the reasons they haven’t spoken in 40 years despite living next door to one another.
Hákonarson sketches a fairly complete sense of both place and community with simple strokes. The scope frame is well-employed in capturing the expansiveness of the cold, hard, windswept valley and the tiny town’s place within it. As for the people, Rams teaches us all we need to know about the varied but close-knit members of this farming hamlet in a series of brief group scenes – the ram contest, the meeting about the government’s decision to euthanize their animals and a meal at a local restaurant that the gruff Kiddi hilariously attends only to sit alone silently at another table.
The disease that threatens the sheep is said to be a very old one that has yet to be eradicated. That’s just as true of the decades-long rift between Gummi and Kiddi. It’s almost not important what caused it; the root of the issue is no longer the problem. Like the infection rotting the rams’ horns, it is the brothers’ stubbornness feeding on itself that has eroded goodwill and perpetuated the feud.
While the personalities of the other farmers are clear-cut, Rams cleverly and patiently teases out the dynamic between Gummi and Kiddi. The audience is allowed to think one of them is in the more respectable position before it gradually dawns on us that it is the other way around. Then, just when we think they’ve settled into their roles, Hákonarson shows us the that the man with the seemingly lower standing has yet untapped virtues of loyalty and fortitude.
Rams holds heartbreak, triumph and inspiration but all of it is executed with a phlegmatic wit that makes the movie fun to watch even when it’s about estranged siblings and dying animals. In places and situations like these, I suppose, one has to be able to laugh.