Iceland: where the jumpers are woolly, the men are woolly, and even the landscapes are woolly – with sheep. At least, that’s how it is in Rams (Hrútar), an Icelandic drama written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson.
Two sheep farmers (Sigurður Sigurjónsson as Gummi and Theodór Júlíusson as Kiddi) live on neighbouring blocks of land with mere metres between their homes, but haven’t spoken to each other for forty years – and they’re brothers.
The tension between the two is palpable, particularly when they’re both at a sheep competition and – you guessed it – only one brother can win. Gummi is the quieter, more introspective of the two and has some rather peculiar habits – like cutting his toenails with massive shearing scissors. But they both appear to be in need of some TLC: their clothing is worn and full of holes, their homes are tired-looking. There are no women for miles – only sheep.
The sheep are more than just a way for the brothers to make a buck (pardon the pun) – they’re adored and a select, special few are considered family. This isn’t such a bizarre idea when it comes to Icelandic culture as apparently, farmers can have an almost spiritual connection with their sheep. For centuries, sheep were the Icelandic people’s main livelihood, used for milk, wool, and meat. However, it has only become more difficult to make money farming sheep, so their numbers are on the decline. In the 80s there were almost three times as many sheep in Iceland as there are today.
Diseases like scrapie can put a farmer out of business. And that’s just what happens in Rams, with Gummi’s discovery that Kiddi’s sheep are exhibiting the tell-tale symptoms. Scrapie is a highly contagious and usually fatal condition attacking the spinal cord and brain of the sheep, not something even a charming little pig and a “baa, ram, ewe” could fix:
And so this dire situation is what forces Gummi and Kiddi to finally speak – even though it begins in the form of insults and gunshots from Kiddi. The film doesn’t come to the conclusion you might expect, and certainly doesn’t tie everything up into a neat little bow: that just wouldn’t be the Icelandic way.
The landscapes in the film are rather desolate and haunting yet beautiful. Hakonarson shot the film using an extra-wide anamorphic lens. He says he was inspired by certain shots in the film There Will Be Blood, and that Rams is “an Icelandic Western with sheep and guns”.
The performances from Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson are rather stunning, neither of whom are lacking in experience on stage and screen. The sheep deserve an honourable mention, having gone through a rigourous casting process. Only pet sheep got the nod, as their wilder siblings would just run at the sight of humans.
Rams is a very quiet film, told through actions and images rather than words. It’s also very bleak; while it is certainly captivating, I feel it could have benefitted from more lightness. It’s really a story about isolation, and how the pride of these men has influenced the course of their lives.
However there are some amusing moments in the film, like when the sheepdog relays the brothers’ written messages in his mouth. Just don’t go along expecting any LOLs, even though the trailer and poster might suggest them.
Listen to the podcast of Gemma’s review live on Breakfast with Caitlin on RTR FM 92.1 here.
Rams is now showing as part of Lotterywest Festival Films, Season 2. At UWA Somerville nightly until Sunday 20 March, then at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday 22 to Sunday 27 March. Tickets/more info: perthfestival.com.au