Rams is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
It begins as a droll tale of neighboring, sheep-farming brothers who harbor decades of animus; the bitterness boils over when one wins the prize for best ram over the other in a competition among area breeders. But this lovely Icelandic film ventures to unexpected places, and the chilly setting and wry delivery belie its emotional weight and rich observations about family, loneliness, and the bond between humans and animals.
The results of the aforementioned contest are preceded by a comic encomium to the sheep:
“In this nation none has played a larger role and survived through ice and fire. Whatever happens, resistant and tough, for 1,000 years mankind’s savior and friend. All year around, in joy and disagreement, the sheep intertwines with the farmer’s work and being. Bright was the outlook when our sheep felt fine. Black were the nights with the flock in decline.”
The inflated accolades are delivered, and received by the audience, with such reverence that you can’t help but chuckle. Yet writer-director Grimur Hakonarson conveys great affection for the characters. Sheep are the primary livelihood in the remote countryside these characters inhabit, and the farmers live for them. Particularly aging brothers Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), who have grown apart despite their stone’s-throw proximity and lack of other family.
After Kiddi’s ram edges Gummi’s for top prize, Gummi, in a fit of jealousy, secretly assesses the thickness of the animal’s rump, the determining, half-point factor in the contest. Upon examination, Gummi believes the ram to have scrapie, a form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease) that affects sheep and goats. He immediately removes his own ram from a shared pen, takes it home, and gives it a bath (in his own bathtub).
Gummi stirs a panic and draws the ire of his brother when he mentions his suspicion to another farmer. Kiddi cherishes the ram, one of the last two of the heralded Bolstadur stock (Gummi has the other), and a scrapie diagnosis would likely mean slaughter for all the sheep in the surrounding countryside.
A fellow sheep breeder breaks the verdict from authorities: “They’ve got to take the entire valley.”
“Why not just take us too?” Kiddi replies.
Rams is touched with melancholy, and its humor is understated and organic. A literally running gag has Kiddi’s dog relaying written messages between the brothers (angry notes, requests to borrow farm equipment, an invoice for windows shot out by a drunken Kiddi). In one finely tuned sequence, the volatile Kiddi launches an alcohol-fueled tirade at his more reserved brother from outside Gummi’s house in the middle of a winter night; he filibusters so long, he passes out in a snowdrift. When Gummi is unable to wake his brother the next morning, he scoops Kiddi up with a shovel-equipped tractor and drives him down long country roads, cars piling up behind him, and across a wide river to the nearest town, where he dumps him at the doors of a hospital and promptly turns around.
Constructed with precision and elegance, Rams is also a sneakily powerful film. A stark hillside, where the story eventually takes the brothers amid a blizzard, lurks quietly in the background from the movie’s opening scene; by the film’s climax, it offers salvation and threatens death. As the brothers, Sigurjonsson and Juliusson play not just grumpy old men, but siblings with deep scars; they convey the weight of a family history that is otherwise touched on discreetly, in snippets of conversation, in photos from the brothers’ youth.
The extermination of their sheep to prevent the spread of scrapie further drives the brothers apart. Kiddi believes Gummi betrayed him and eradicated the bloodline of his champion ram; Gummi holds Kiddi accountable for the outbreak and subsequent death of his flock, which in a quiet and devastating scene he destroys himself. But Gummi has a secret that reconnects the brothers, and with or without the sheep, they still have—and need—each other.
The film’s final moments are poignant and abrupt and perfect. Though Rams was generally well received by critics and won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2015, some find the conclusion unsatisfactory. Yes, it leaves loose ends blowing in the snowstorm, but it feels honest and earned, and it binds the story’s central conflict.
Perhaps there is a lineage of sheep known as the MacGuffin.