Rams is not as strange as its Un Certain Regard win suggests. It’s a disappointment in many ways, an ambivalent film which seems too afraid to take its ideas a step further. It’s an intimate drama without the emotional weight to give its subjects gravity. It’s described as an existential comedy, something I only partially agree with. The film has remarkable deadpan, but little to do with the word “existential”. It’s also a political parable, apparently, but any ideas pertaining to Iceland’s sheep farmers and their relationship with the government are touched on too mildly for the film to make any compelling statement on the topic. Rams knows what it wants to be, it’s just a shame that its director, Grímur Hákonarson, who seems talented in his own right, never gives it that identity. His film is half-formed, a story of loose ends left untied, relationships unexplored and opinions neglected.
The story centers on the relationship of estranged brothers, who are jokingly remarked as not having spoken to one another in 40 years. If that alone doesn’t sound strange, the two live in seclusion as sheep farmers, their houses only feet away from each other. The plot shakes up a little during a local competition, to judge the best sheep, where Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) loses to his brother, Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson). The former—a sore loser—examines his brother’s ram, only to discover the animal is exhibiting signs of “scrapie”, a transmittable disease that only effects sheep. When these suspicions are confirmed, and it’s decided that all the sheep in the valley need to be quarantined and subsequently killed, the two brothers approach it differently. Kiddi responds in immediate, drunken defiance while Gummi takes it with a devastating acceptance.
Júlíusson and Sigurjónsson do a good job portraying brothers, you get a real sense that there’s a long history of unspoken pain and resentment between the two. Most of their relationship is shown through proxies, very little do the two acknowledge one another directly, and when they do, it’s mostly just Kiddi bullying and verbally abusing Gummi. Most of the film’s well-earned laughs are from the brothers’ Border Collie, who relays written messages between the two. Moments between the brothers, even at arm’s length, can even seem amiable, particularly one scene where Gummi takes his passed out brother to the hospital in the bucket of his tractor.
There are also snippets of interesting dialogue about the kind of life the two lead, especially among the other sheep farmers, musing on what their next move is after their sheep are slaughtered. These moments however are only few and far between.
Character motivation in the film is mostly shallow and directionless. Gummi, who takes it upon himself to kill his sheep has managed to spare a few (stowing them away in his basement), in hopes to breed them. The results are predictable, the local biohazard crew find out, and both brothers reunite to protect the remaining flock. I can’t think of anything more confusing in trying to sympathetically resolve the brothers’ woes than to do it through both characters’ mutually idiotic decision-making. Perhaps there is a powerful tragedy to be found in so inevitable a failure, but the outcome is too anticlimactic and the execution too half-cocked. The brothers’ relationship is well-established, but it’s a conflict founded mostly on quirky deadpan. It works as comedy but ultimately does little to earn the deeply founded emotion Hákonarson tries to convey by the film’s end—a physical and emotional moment of intimacy, it’s weighty but dramatically unintelligible.
Rams isn’t really about Icelandic culture, rural workmanship or brotherhood. And at the same time, it’s about all those things. What little investment Hákonarson places in these ideas are ultimately what fail him. These premises make the film sound interesting to begin with, and he does a bang-up job laying the groundwork, but the building blocks however interesting to look at, are mostly hollow. Rams isn’t a complete failure, and although it’s not a good film, there is too much obvious craft and reserve to consider it an all-out bad one. With so many wild ideas tackled at once, perhaps it’s Rams’ modest realism that ultimately holds it back from the tragicomic tour de force that it wants to be.