Sigurdur Sigurjonsson in Rams (Cohen Media Group)

Sigurdur Sigurjonsson in Rams (Cohen Media Group)

yellowstar The opening credits spell it out: 800,000 sheep among 320,000 Icelanders. Living in the remote northern part of the country, two brothers, bachelor sheep farmers past middle age, live alone on side by side farms. Their family has lived in the region for generations, raising prized thoroughbred stock. Both brothers have an attentive, paternal relationship with their herds—their constant companions—yet the men haven’t said a word to each other in four decades. The falling out is never addressed, most likely because no one exactly remembers it.

The simmering feud reignites when Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) accuses Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) of cheating in a local best-ram competition, and it continues as the entire valley of shepherds faces a crisis. As ordered by the government, all sheep are to be slaughtered to prevent the spread of scrapie, an infectious and incurable disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord of sheep. Everything needs to be destroyed to prevent the epidemic: tools, floorboards, and feed. This agricultural disaster forms an unlikely backdrop for comedy of a would-be Cain and Abel. Each brother handles the threat to their livelihood differently—at least at first. The friction becomes so heightened that the go-between for these two proudly resolute men is a message-delivering dog.

Deceptively unassuming storytelling (understated acting and the rhythm of the long takes) gives way to a slow thaw, beguiling the viewer without overstaying its welcome (at a precise 93 minutes). In keeping with writer and director Grimur Hakonarson’s low-key approach, the dialogue is sparse, giving the impression that the script probably takes up only a small number of pages. Yet the performances are so layered that one could imagine the script reading more like a short story. Unlike a film that takes one idea and nearly stretches the life out of it, Rams builds tension from the brothers’ antagonism in tandem with their hijinks, such as when Gummi cleverly comes up with a practical, makeshift type of ambulance.

With the deadpan reactions and a tone so droll, the comedy plays out almost like a silent film. The tit-for tat retaliations are likely to elicit guffaws, but there are many laugh-out-loud moments and one (well-timed) use of bathroom humor. Even without the dark-toned comedy, the plot stands alone as a battle of the elements, beginning with the arrival of the disease.

The advantage to seeing this in theaters is the experience of widescreen vistas. (The rocky and volcanic landscapes are as foreboding and isolating as any expanse in an Antonioni film, especially as winter approaches.) But if you do see this on a small-screen, stay with it. Slowly but surely, the brothers, for all of their obstinacy, will win you over.

Written and Directed by Grimur Hakonarson
Produced by Grímar Jonsson
Released by Cohen Media Group
Icelanic with English subtitles
Iceland. 93 min. Not rated
With Sigurdur Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson