Adapted from the eponymous 2003 Norwegian novel written by Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses is a drama that zigzags back and forth in time between the 1940s, the 1950s and 1999, just before the turn of the millennium. It revisits the lives of two men who meet again by chance at old age, and are hardly enthused by the impending celebrations. The film takes place in a rural area of Norway, very near the border with Sweden.
Trond Sander (played by stellar veteran Stellan Skarsgard) has retired to a very remote village faway from Oslo following his wife’s death in a car accident. He does not have a telephone, and is seeking complete isolation. One day he bumps into his neighbour Lars, who shares a tragic and sad anecdote from his past. He killed a dog when he was teenager. But it wasn’t just a dog that he killed. Trond soon realises that Lars is no stranger. They shared their youth, when Lars fatally shot his twin brother Odd with a shotgun he did not know to be loaded.
Suddenly all the memories from the past come back to haunt Trond. He reminisces about the year 1948, which he spent with his father in a wooden cabin. He helped his father to fell lumber, while also befriending the local teenagers (including Lars’s older brother Jon). Jon and Trond would often “steal” horses for the sake a little adventure, hence the film title. Until Odd gets killed, and the dynamics of every relationship are changed.
The photography of Our Stealing Horses is magnificent. Mollend captures the local fauna and flora with an enormous amount of attention to detail and subtle movements. An owl gently takes off. A scurrying hare is shot. A hand picks up a dead fly. A tiny flower blossoms. The sun shines through the verdant and dense tree canopies. And so on. The seasons are also exquisitely depicted, and the weather changes are very palpable.
It isn’t just the weather that’s quickly shifting. People are changing, too. Trond becomes infatuated with Lars’s mother. The awkward romantic moment is interrupted by yet another peculiar accident. His relationship with his father begins to change. The most spectacular scenes are at the end of this 119-minute film, when Trond and his father reconnect, and they follow the floating lumber in order to ensure that it reaches its final destination in Sweden.
This is a very Scandinavian film about stoicism. Trond learns to let go of his father, of his wife and also of his daughter. He never feels guilty. He wishes to disconnect from the past. People move forward in strange ways. Sometimes people get stuck in a rock, sometimes they get caught in a woodpile. Just like lumber flowing down the river. But that’s just temporary. Eventually both people and the timber will carry on with their lives regardless of what happened in the past. Let bygones be bygones. It’s just water under the river.
Overall, Out Stealing Horses is an effective and moving drama. However, I did struggle to follow the numerous characters and twists, and to work out the subtle cultural differences between Sweden and Norway. There’s also a political element about the German occupation of Norway during WW2 (Sweden remained neutral), but that never came full circle (maybe it does in the book?). There are quite a few loose ends, and perhaps that’s precisely what the director intended to do. Or maybe not. It could be that the plot is just too convoluted for a feature film. At times I was left dumbfounded by the minutiae of this complex narrative. You too might struggle a little, unless you are Scandinavian or have read the book.
Out Stealing Horses is a very far cry from Hans Petter Molland’s Cold Pursuit, which is out in the UK next week. The latter is a bleak and soulless Hollywood thriller starring Liam Neeson. It relies mostly on violence and it’s a sheer apologia of vigilantism. This Norwegian drama, is a profound humanistic portrayal of two old men. Violence here is accidental and painful, and never romanticised. It’s hard to believe that the same director made the two films nearly at the same time. The impressive wintry photography is about the only thing that these two films have in common.
Out Stealing Horses has just premiered in competition at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival