We’re never told why the two brothers don’t speak to each other. From the moment they’re introduced, they communicate with crude hand gestures, accusations, rifle fire and carrier-dog letters. They live in a world of blame and jealousy. When their prized rams are brought to the local community centre for fame and prestige, the brothers regard each other through a veil, as if they’re not allowed to be breathing the same air. Rams, written and directed by the Icelandic Grímur Hákonarson, is about the tumultuous relationship between these two men, and of course about their sheep.
Their sheep are the most important, for in this rural village in Iceland the sheep are all they have, for company, produce, status, and food, I’m assuming. To lose your sheep is to lose face, and sometimes in the small communities losing face can be a hurt more terrible than when a friend on Facebook is no longer a friend. This is the danger that lurks in the veins of Rams. Hákonarson has designed a fragile Iceland, one built not just on the trees and grass but on the interactions of each of its citizens. One prick of the needle and the entire social bubble could burst, leaving little to suggest reparations.
So Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) wins the ram competition that as far as I can tell is a simple race to see which farmer owns the most impressive sheep. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is none too pleased. His ram Garpur is in prime condition. A sure winner. What does Kiddi’s ram have that his doesn’t?
Gummi inspects the champion in secret and finds that he doesn’t have a majestic rump but suspects he may have contracted scrapie, a lethal, incurable ovine disease that could potentially ruin the livestock of the entire village. He notifies the local vet Katrin (Charlotte Bøving), who performs her own inspection and determines that all the sheep must be put down if the village is to be purged and replenished. The town collective reluctantly agrees and sees to the preparations. Kiddi, meanwhile, is adamant that Gummi made the accusation out of spite, meaning to destroy the town on his envy’s behalf. It is their disagreements, see, that fuel their conflict. Their disagreements we know very little about.
I will keep the rest of the plot a secret, even though Hákonarson doesn’t go to great lengths to provide twists and turns that could upset the balance of his story. He has no reason to; Rams feeds off the laconic energy of Gummi, who is in just about every scene and is a portrait of stoic worry. There is no need to twist here and turn there, because in Gummi’s life there is only a straight road, and it leads to his sheep.
The film, too, is on a straight road, but its destination is unclear. If it falters any, it’s in the moments leading up to the ending, where Hákonarson forsakes the individualities of his characters and subjects them mildly to the whim of his screenplay. I didn’t know what I was expecting to happen at the movie’s close, because in a story such as this it’s difficult to foresee where circumstances will carry its people, but I was amused by the closing shot. It leads to questions I hadn’t thought of and presents our hero in a state of total reliance. It is befitting, I suppose, because most movies outside of the United States refuse to assuage us with any sort of closure or reassurance. If we want such luxuries, we must find them for ourselves. And so it is with Rams, a movie of great beauty and plausible characters, of rich traditions and solidarity, but also of tempestuous human conditions, both hidden within and exposed for the world to see.