The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
Recollections of childhood memories evoke a sense of questioning late in life. What if I had done this? What if I didn’t do that? The Norweigan film Out Stealing Horses, directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Stellan Skarsgård, looks at past experiences, making us face these recollections. There is an exploration of heartache and coming-of-age that I was able to attach to easily.
“I don’t feel guilt, only loss,” our main character says. I knew going in that this was a film based on a book, and it shows. Having never read the novel, I was hesitant yet curious to witness Moland’s presentation of the material.
What is great about a film set in Norway is that the landscape itself becomes a character. This is a breathing travel brochure of a film. Moland has a range of stunning set pieces that he shoots with great confidence. But, what’s really on display is the study about failed relationships and forgotten pain.
Mentioned earlier, this film is based off of a novel. After getting halfway through, it was pretty obvious. It plays out like a piece of classic literature read in high school. Moland does well conveying emotions and abstract scenes usually expanded on and nurtured within pages of a book.
Horses tells two stories -- rather one story at two different times -- an older man in the present (his present being 1999) and the summer he spent with his father as a boy in 1948. The former, smaller story is cold, blue, and static. The bulk of the film lies in the latter story of the past -- where it is sunny, warm, and kinetic. Moland and editors Jens Christian Fodstad and Nicolaj Monberg sew in jarring cuts; these quick splices are warranted, acting for Skarsgård as triggering memory neurons, firing off after decades of being dormant.
In 1999, with subtle touches of Y2K buzz sprinkled in the background, an old man, gripped with loss after his wife of 38 years dies in a car accident, absconds to a quiet isolated house to be left alone with his depression, his dog, and Charles Dickens novels.
“You decide when it will hurt.”
This man is Trond (Skarsgård), and he really loves his peace and quiet. He is awoken in the middle of the night by a man looking for his lost dog. Turns out Trond has a neighbor. His name is Lars, and he holds Trond in captive conversation on a cold winter night for almost 10 minutes. Trond recognizes Lars as the young boy from his childhood who accidentally shot his own twin brother, Odd, at the age of 10. This innocuous meeting with Lars sends Trond reeling down memory lane to that summer of 1948 when Odd was killed. Trond was a 15-year-old boy visiting his father for the summer. He has a friend near his age, Jon, who he adventures through the Norwegian forest with, paddling canoes, felling lumber, and stealing horses. “Well, we don’t steal them, we just ride them actually,” says a young Trond (Jon Ranes) to his father.
One day, his father who is never named, points out to Trond that Jon wasn’t acting like himself. We discover Jon is the older brother of Lars and Odd and blames himself for not watching more closely when the shooting accident between the twins occurs. Jon’s parents bury Odd, send Jon away, and carry on helping Trond’s father in his lumbering of the forest. But what is seen between the scenes are the fabric ripping in the two families. Jon’s father suffers an injury and is removed from the story, leaving Trond’s father and Jon’s mother to pick up the pieces.
When Trond returns to his mother in Oslo when summer ends, he leaves with a pain that won’t blossom until later in life. Ultimately, Trond grows up to live like his father did, isolated and alone. I won’t spoil how the pieces fit (or don’t fit) in the end. This isn’t a happy film, but it is a cathartic one.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The true star of this film isn't Skarsgård, despite his top billing. It is young Jon Ranes playing the boy Trond. The experiences the character is pushed through as a 15-year-old run the board from solemn to extraordinary. He sees his friend break down, and his father act deceitfully. He gazes at Jon’s mother, mostly the curves of her body, as a budding adolescent would. He learns hard truths and carries it all on his face. It says a lot about acting prowess when I didn’t require the subtitles to understand the situation. His father is confidently played by Tobias Santelmann, carrying the handsome lumberjack features on the surface and a severe weakness underneath. Skarsgård is brilliant in all of his scenes. Since he is shown relatively little, it is a true treat when we jump back to his character as the old Trond in 1999.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
...a beautiful and gorgeous slow burn.
There weren’t many effects or heavy make-up requirements for this film. The cinematography on display is a masterclass. From the opening shots, both Thomas Hardmeier and Rasmus Videbæk light each scene with the greatest of care. Shadows drape across Skarsgård in his cold loneliness, echoing his desolation and solitude. There are some breathtaking underwater shots during a particular climactic scene on the river. Even if your ears can’t handle Norwegian dialogue, your eyes will be treated to a visual banquet.
Out Stealing Horses (2020) | VOD
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score is the perfect companion for the beautiful setting of mountains, fjords, snow, and water. The music, written effectively by Kaspar Kaae, hooked me from the beginning. Quite simply, the score sounds like Norway. It almost betrays the mood of the film, and this is its power.
Make no mistake. With a runtime just over two hours, Out Stealing Horses is a beautiful and gorgeous slow burn. I was happy I saw it, but I don’t know if I will ever see it again. If you are a certified film-nut, devotee of international cinema, or need something to put you to sleep, maybe start here.
This is not a film for the casual movie goer. But it is a film for those who might need to let go of pain they’ve held for so long.
“We do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.”
It asks a lot of questions that it doesn’t want answers to. It makes me think about those questions: What if? Why not? Would I have? It is a film about not getting what you want and never truly knowing if not getting what you want was helpful or hurtful.