The Icelandic film Rams is about two grizzled farmers who enjoy unusually warm relationships with their sheep. Expect no nudges or winks: Though it's amply salted with dry wit, the movie is a heartfelt inquiry into why two brothers who live side by side have not spoken in 40 years. Each channels the missing affection into his prize-winning flock, but make no mistake: Both men also love their sheep because they're big and woolly and goofy, and the rams have proud, curling horns, and they're the sole source of income for all the inhabitants of a sleepy village that's lived the same way for eons. You may come to love them too, but it's not really about the sheep. It's about sibling rivalry, and about how otherwise decent folk slip into feuding, then wear their rage and hurt like a protective glove forever, or at least until a crisis forces a radical game change.
Gummi and Kiddi, played in deep beard by veteran actors Theodor Juliusson and Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, are way less cuddly than their names suggest. The taciturn brothers live in adjacent spartan homes on the edge of a small Northern Iceland farming community. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the stark landscape is all waving grasses in summer, unforgiving snow and ice in winter. Whatever the season, the men don't speak, communicating as needed by means of a note-carrying dog or, when a sterner message is in order, a shotgun aimed through a window.
Writer-director Grimur Hakonarson deftly blends a Fargo-like drollness with the heartbreak of this obstinate standoff. After losing a coveted prize for best ram to Kiddi, Gummi discovers symptoms of a highly contagious disease in one of his brother's sheep. Kiddi accuses his brother of jealousy and retreats into an escalating round of benders. Meanwhile, the authorities descend in force to destroy all the sheep in the tiny village, which amounts to a backwater equivalent of Silicon Valley succumbing to virulent malware in every laptop.
For Gummi and Kiddi, the loss of their flocks (well, not entirely, hold the thought) leaves both men stranded in a long winter with nothing to do but take their hostilities further south, and each responds according to his character. The seemingly more adult and self-sufficient Gummi sets a fancy table to eat Christmas dinner alone in a jacket and tie. Kiddi, his elder but not wiser, is a brawling boozer and social isolate who's often to be found in a ditch, dead drunk and on the verge of freezing to death. Gummi, it turns out, is no angel either.
Late in Rams we're offered an extrinsic cause for all the bad blood. But if the movie touches on universal issues of sibling rivalry, the psychological insight is almost incidental in what is an intensely particular and roughly tender tone piece. The dialogue is bald and functional, leaving the brothers' surging energies to pool in a carefully tended silence that howls with loneliness — and, if you're paying attention, a warped and ambivalent caretaking that will, perhaps inevitably, migrate from the brother who seemed to care most to the one bent on showing he never cared at all. You may think you've seen it all when one sibling spills the other onto the front steps of a hospital emergency room from his dump truck. There's more at the close, when Rams turns shockingly primeval, and as beautiful and satisfying as it is improbable. Unless, of course, you happen to be an Icelandic bachelor in a blizzard, looking for his lost sheep and trying to make up for 40 lost years.