Icelandic humor has got to be the darkest kind of humor out there. Looking at the country’s history, it makes sense: in around 1260, deforestation, volcanic eruptions, and infertile soil ravaged the land. In the 15th century, the Black Plague hit twice, wiping out entire generations of settlers. One third of those bloodlines who survived would be killed by small pox three hundred years later.
It’s no wonder, then, that “Rams” is barely a comedy by American standards. To call it “bleak” would be an understatement. Director Grimur Hakonarson makes Iceland’s empty interior as much a character as the assiduous Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjonsson, “Brave Men’s Blood”) and his estranged, hard-drinking brother, Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson, “The Deep”).
The two of them are farmers. For 40 years, they haven’t spoken a word to each other despite being neighbors. The only thing they have in common is their undying love for their sheep. When scrapie, an incurable nervous system disease, sweeps through their herds, the brothers find that they can’t deal with the plague alone.
There’s a great deal of unexpressed love between Gummi and Kiddi. But “Rams” makes a point of intertwining love and death. One does not, and cannot, exist without the other. In the opening scene, Gummi goes from nuzzling his prize ram to finding that one of his brother’s sheep has died. By the time Kiddi is introduced, the metaphor is clear. The title “Rams” is not about the rams at all, it’s about the brothers.
In 90 percent of their interactions, they butt heads, just like the animals they shepherd. It’s an on-the-nose metaphor, and one that’s done well. But Gummi and Kiddi’s relationship feels oversimplified because of it. Since their past is explored only vaguely, their arcs don’t have the cathartic quality that director Hákonarson attributes to them.
Of course, this all sounds very dark. And it is, but it’s also funny. It’s a desert-dry kind of humor, one that sneaks up on you. That stealthy quality makes the “gags” all the more hilarious. One of the darkest moments in the movie, how Gummi deals with his infected flock, for example, is immediately undercut by one of the funniest moments in the movie.
In the end, “Rams” is a movie for a particular mindset. It’s about as bleak as tragicomedies gets. From the barren setting of rural Iceland to the long, dialogue-free stretches that punctuate it, the movie lifts its desolation up. After all, if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you, so why not laugh at it?