The County: A Load of Bull, by David Bax
In the first shots of Grímur Hákonarson’s The County, Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir’s Inga enters a barn to find a cow early in the act of giving birth, with a pair of small hooves protruding from her body. Inga wraps a chain around those appendages, leans herself back on the straw-strewn floor and firmly, forcefully begins to pull until the entire mucus-covered calf lies on ground in front of her, ears twitching, tongue flicking out to taste the musty winter air for the first time. Moments later, we see another cow–or at least its udders–as a robotic milking arm uses laser guidance to latch on and extract milk. In these early scenes, we get a taste of what The County could have been, a film that (like Ramin Bahrani’s underrated At Any Price from 2012) contrasts the cultural imagination of labor-intensive but fruitful agrarian life with the more high-tech and yet more economically fraught realities of its present form. Instead, Hákonarson caves in to lightweight pathos.
Inga and her husband, Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson), are barely keeping the family dairy farm running while drowning in debt to the local farmer’s co-op. After Reynir’s sudden death, Inga decides to break the culture of silence in the community about the co-op’s corrupt, racketeering ways, charging its members exorbitant prices for farming staples like fertilizer and preventing them from selling their goods should they dare to seek out more affordable suppliers, keeping multiple farms in perpetual debut and thus under the co-op’s thumb.
David and Goliath stories in which Goliath is a big fish in a little pond are a dime a dozen in the Western genre, which is full of little lords holding sway over far-flung hamlets. Aesthetically, that’s sometimes the kind of movie The County feels like (even the title evokes rural Americana, at least on these shores). Hákonarson employs the same frostbitten, widescreen vistas as he did in his previous fiction feature, 2015’s Rams.
Like that film, The County plays out within the interpersonal politics of a small community. Inga’s protest against the co-op takes a no less mundane form than a Facebook post and yet her breaking of the status quo causes an immediate realignment of relationships throughout the town.
Unlike Rams, unfortunately, The County is almost never funny. It has its moments, sure, like the cheeky use of a driving, percussive, action movie-type score when Inga commits small acts of insubordination against the co-op. But a more continuously dark, sardonic humor like that of the older film may have helped this one feel a little less commonplace.
But Hákonarson is hesitant to commit to anything that would too closely resemble a point of view. Even the individualistic, free market advocacy that seems to be its raison d’etre gets walked back in the third act. The County is so lacking in inspiration that I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t some heap of “based on a true story” pablum.