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‘Out Stealing Horses’ (‘Ut Og Stjaele Hester’): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Stellan Skarsgard retires to solitary life in the Norwegian woods after the death of his wife, but the past comes knocking in Hans Petter Moland’s drama.

An extraordinary feeling for nature and the seasons of life pervades Out Stealing Horses (Ut Og Stjaele Hester), an ambitious reflection on our responsibility to others from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland. A resonant film made for adults constructed out of breathtaking landscapes, this Berlin competition title should have no trouble finding its preordained audiences and festival accolades.

The title’s Old West twang is probably not unintentional. Stellan Skarsgard plays a retired man who has never forgotten the sheer joy of rolling logs and riding horses in the wilderness, where he once spent an unforgettable summer with his father. Now, amid the heavy snows of winter, he moves back and settles into a comfy house tucked into the woods to begin a quiet, solitary life. But his meditations on the events of that long-ago summer change his older self. Setting aside the wry humor and bloodletting of A Somewhat Gentle Man and In Order of Disappearance — both of which also starred Skarsgard, the latter spawning the director’s own English-language remake with Liam Neeson, Cold Pursuit — Moland crafts a gripping character drama spanning generations. 

Though the plot’s complexities and triple timelines reveal the screenplay has been adapted from a novel (authored by Per Pettersen), writer-director Moland makes us forget the story’s literary origins when he wants to. His confident filmmaking sweeps the audience into a tactile, sensorial world of strong visuals and unexpected musical intensifiers.

In 1999, just a few months before the millennium, the film’s narrator Trond (Skarsgard) moves back to the Norwegian countryside from Sweden, where he has lived for over 40 years. He has had a good, full life, but after his wife died in a car accident he chose to return home. However, his solitude is soon interrupted by a gray-haired neighbor (Bjorn Floberg), who he recognizes as the young boy Lars.

Flashback to 1948. Trond (Jon Ranes) is 15 and delighted to be spending the summer with his handsome woodsman father (Tobias Santelmann) in a remote hut near the river. They fell trees, swim and take rain showers together. Their entente is perfect. On the dark side are several tragic accidents that occur to their neighbors. One day, Trond is out riding wild horses with his friend Jon, when he notices how wound up the other boy is. Later, his father tells him that on the previous day, while Jon was supposed to be watching over his small twin brothers, one of the boys grabbed his loaded rifle and fired it at the other.

At the funeral and then at a community fence-raising, young Trond meets Jon’s glowing, dark-haired mother (Danica Curcic) who knocks him off his feet. He even fantasizes that she returns his tender feelings, not noticing the small clues that she and his father have been lovers since the war, when they were in the anti-Nazi resistance movement together.

Another dramatic accident takes place on the river. Though it’s not the right season to float sap-heavy timber downstream, his father has insisted on piling up the logs made from his felled trees with the help of Jon’s father. The idea is to float them down the river into Sweden to be sold, but a moment’s distraction again leads to disaster.

There is enough material here for a lifetime of guilt for at least two parties, and Trond himself makes a third: it turns out he was driving the car in which his wife was killed. Surprisingly, he says he feels no guilt, only loss. This inner strength comes from his father. In a beautifully modulated scene in a wheat field, just before the end of the summer, Dad advises him that it’s okay to think about the terrible things that happen to us and because of us, but not to hold on to them and own them.

It would be a spoiler to tell the end of his father’s story, which has so deeply affected him. But looking back on the turning points in his life, he has to recognize his father was right when he said, a propos of cutting stinging nettles, “We decide for ourselves what will hurt.”

Skarsgard makes a thoughtful, reassuring first-person narrator. His mobile features reacting to the people and things around him but never over-playing his hand. You can see him in the expressions of Jon Ranes as young Trond, who like his older self is an avid reader of Dickens.  

One of the pleasures of this extremely sensual film is the way it elicits physical sensations in the viewer through expressive camerawork, cutting and sound effects. Dramatic moments are signaled by a low rumbling like an avalanche arriving. While the ever-changing spectacle of nature filmed by cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek enchants the eye, it is intensified by Klaus Kaae’s sweetly original score.

Production company: 4 ½ Fiksjon, Helgeland Film
Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Bjorn Floberg, Tobias Santelmann, Jon Ranes, Danica Curcic
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Screenwriter: Hans Petter Moland, based on a novel by Per Petterson
Producers: Hakon Overas, Turid Oversveen
Director of photography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production designer: Jorgen Stangebye Larsen
Costume designer: Anne Pedersen
Editors: Niolaj Monberg, Jens Christian Fodstad
Music: Kaspar Kaae
Casting: Celine Engebrigtsen
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: TrustNordisk

122 minutes

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