By Cooper Copeland
If you, like me, are not a farmer and don’t spend much of your free time considering the relationship between man and sheep, then you, like me, will probably find Rams a wryly humorous and surprisingly tragic tale of what it means to rely financially and emotionally on the contents of one’s soil and the creatures that roam it.
It may at first seem laughable that a movie is centered on the subject of sheep. We’ve seen ‘em at their best in Babe, talking cheek with a cute pig, but rarely have we seen them take on greater stints of drama. Luckily, Icelandic writer-director Grímur Hákonarson knew the precise angle in which these particular sheep could shine, and that was through the narrative of two brothers, Gummi and Kiddi. Living on neighboring farms and tending to their most prized breed of ram, their sheep are a matter of distinct pride in their family’s heritage, and also a source of companionship in the abundantly isolated countryside.
It turns out things aren’t so chummy in this quaint Icelandic valley, however. These gruff brothers haven’t spoken to one another in forty years despite their close living quarters, and when scrapie, a deadly and incurable disease found in sheep, makes an appearance in the herd—the consequence of which is to slaughter every sheep in the vicinity—the entire community’s livelihood is automatically threatened. While some farmers cave in the wake of this tragedy, Kiddi and Gummi take matters into their own hands, and whether they like it or not, it’s in the other that hope and help dwells.
In so many ways, Rams could’ve been an enormously dull project. With little dialogue and set against such a remote landscape, there needed to be something inherently captivating in the story’s heartbeat. To Hákonarson, that meant embedding Iceland’s very distinct sense of humor, which, much like the landscape, is something quiet and offhanded and slowly drags you into its subtle punch lines. For instance, despite Kiddi and Gummi’s age, they still manage to act like immature youngsters, sending each other passive aggressive notes via their dog and getting woefully jealous when the other wins the top prize at the sheep contest—something I mean literally.
That comedic air becomes even more engrossing when mixed with the overwhelming sense of dread that looms over the rolling green hills. Conventions of the thriller genre are introduced as officials from the Department of Agriculture come to make sure all sheep are slaughtered appropriately, and watching the brothers deal with them in almost a Hitchcockian manner makes the laughs feel substantially more worthy as the tension grows.
While Hákonarson’s script and directions is definitely the first source to be praised for the captivating tale, the man onscreen pulling off that mixed bag of genre tricks is Sigurour Sigurjónsson as Gummi. With endlessly expressive eyes and a particular means of carrying himself around his sheep and throughout his beloved land you can see all of the weight and worry that fills him when brought with the news of the planned butchery of his friends. Sigurjónsson never becomes a caricature a farmer who loves his flock—instead he embodies the love and playfulness that we can imagine came with rearing his beloved sheep from birth. And then to watch his relationship with Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) grow from a timid feud to a necessary partnership we come to realize how much family is engrained in the tended land.
Speaking of the land, we must acknowledge Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria) who provided a gorgeous wide-angled depiction of Iceland’s equally lush yet unforgiving landscape. To see the power of weather and light force these worn men to go to great lengths just to keep some of their dignity alive becomes a sweeping example of mournful splendor. What more do you need me to say? If you and yours are ready to root for some woolen clad fellows, both human and otherwise, then look no further than Rams.