There are few sadder images than the face of a man who’s just lost a competition for the best ram. Or at least there are few sadder images in Rams, the new film from Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson. In the film’s opening scenes, Gummi (Theodór Júlíusson) affectionately nuzzles his prize ram, brings him to town to be judged, then, in a ceremony held at a small pub, receives the bad news that with just a little bit more back muscle, his ram might have won. Instead, in an instance of salt meeting wound, the honors go to Kiddi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the brother he hasn’t spoken to since the ’70s.
That takes some effort: Gummi and Kiddi live in adjacent houses on the same property and within clear sight of each other. They even have a way to communicate, when necessary, via Kiddi’s dog, who carries messages back-and-forth. But mostly it’s just steely glares that do the talking. They have temperaments to match the tough climate and, having decided they’re better off not speaking to each other, they don’t have a lot of motivation to change their minds.
If that sounds like a set-up to a wacky comedy — Grumpy Old Men with an Icelandic twist — it’s not. There’s a fair amount of wry humor in the film, especially in the early scenes, but Hákonarson doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the men’s relationship, or the remote lives they lead. The director’s family comes from rural Iceland, he has a background in documentary filmmaking, and he fills the film with details of shepherding life, and the risks involved in pursuing it. Specifically, Gummi and Kiddi breed a strain of sheep cultivated by their families and their bloodline stretches back across generations. But what makes it rare also endangers it, and when Gummi decides to take a look at Kiddi’s prize ram in a fit of jealousy, he makes a discovery that could endanger everything both brothers have built over the years: scrapie, an incurable central nervous system disease. Its presence means that not only will the brothers have to slaughter their entire stock, so will all their neighbors in the valley. (It’s essentially the sheepocalypse.)
There’s more at stake here, in other words, than a herd of sheep. Rams depicts a way of life that might be drawing to a close. The locals make sneering references to “college-educated fools down south,” but have to comply with their demands, no matter how destructive. In one scene, a young couple talks about packing it all in and trying something else, and there’s more than a hint that Gummi and Kiddi, both bachelors, have lasted as long as they have because they don’t know, or have little interest in learning, how to do anything else — or anyone in their lives pushing them in different directions. Like their flocks, they’re probably the end of a long line the likes of which the countryside will never see again.
Rams pushes viewers to that realization gradually and, just as gradually, it reveals the depths of emotion beneath the situation. When Kiddi shoots out Gummi’s windows, Gummi hides in his basement, the look on his face a look of real fear. There’s a possibility that his reporting of the scrapie outbreak will be the thing that finally turns their hostility into violence. Every suggestion, however remote, that one of them might tear down the wall they’ve built between themselves, has real weight to it. It’s a film about two grumpy, old men, sure, but also about how their passions — for shepherding, for not letting one get the better of the other — mean much to them. Their’s is a little drama unfolding far away from the world most of us know, but Rams makes it feel like the whole world depends on them resolving their differences — because to them, it does.
Rams opens in New York on Feb. 3 and Los Angeles on Feb. 5 before rolling out around the country.