In remote, freezing Iceland, two brothers exist side by side on adjoining properties without having exchanged a word for 40 years. In Grimur Hakonarson’s dour, slowly evolving drama Rams (2015) the art of depicting an apparent nothingness is slowly stretched to spellbinding proportions. Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson) is the more laidback sibling but when his prized ram loses narrowly in a local showing to his brother’s top contender, he decides to take a late night peak at the winner’s attributes up close to better understand the judge’s decision. Instead, to his horror, he discovers what appear to be the early signs of a rare but deadly disease. He alerts authorities and naturally, when his brother Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) gets wind of the news, he thinks it’s just an epic case of sour grapes.

The combined sheep are the last of a famous bloodline beloved by both brothers so when the death knell is sounded, requiring them all to be slaughtered and ruling out further ownership for two years, both Gummi and Kiddi are devastated. Secretly however, Gummi decides to withhold a few sheep and his prized ram, hiding them in a rear basement. Eventually he’s found out – by a local authority representative not so fortuitously needing a rest stop on his travels – and the most unlikely possibility of all comes into play – the two brothers actually communicating by a means other than notes delivered by Gummi’s dog. The film, as it nears its end, unfolds with relative abandon after long stretches of relative dormancy in a series of bleak contemplations of life’s misery and injustice. It all builds to what is a miraculous, breath-takingly tender final scene, beautifully held by Hakonarson, as the fates of man and beast are ambiguously left open to the imagination.

Rams is an understated, ghostly film, conjuring tone and atmosphere from a richly captured environment and subtle performances. There’s fascination enough to be had from this immersion in a rarely glimpsed locale on the big screen. Hakonarson’s screenplay may be modest but it plays to its strengths, relying on naturalism and focused performances, especially Sigurjonsson as the more even-handed brother who seems to have long suffered in silence. With great effect, the director manages to juxtapose the bleakness of survival in such a place with a callous, cold wintry brilliance laced with an ethereal beauty that descends with an uncontainable relentlessness. Rams fools us into believing in a seeming simplicity but ultimately there is much at stake here, including the fate of bloodlines of more than one type.

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