Based on the 2003 Norwegian novel by Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses is a sweeping story of traumas inflicted by war, by circumstance, even by our own families. The film version, adapted and directed by Hans Petter Moland, cleaned up at Norway’s Amanda Awards (presented by the Norway International Film Festival)—it won best film, best direction, best score…you get the idea. Starring Stellan Skarsgård as Trond, a widower who decides to live out his remaining years alone in a quiet, rural farmhouse, Out Stealing Horses is told mostly in flashbacks as we learn more about Trond, his childhood during World War II and the various tragedies that plagued him, his family and that of their nearest neighbors. The film covers so much ground, spanning 1943 through 1999, that it’s nearly impossible to do such a rich, multi-layered story justice in 123 minutes. Moland does his best, however, and with the help of cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk (who nearly turns the film into something close to a nature documentary), Out Stealing Horses proves to be a thoughtful journey through the most dramatic moments of one man’s life and how those moments continue to haunt him decades later.
The film, like the book, bounces around chronologically, and in this way Trond’s life is revealed in moments that both inform who he is later in life and recall how he came to be that way. Settling into the rundown house he’s recently purchased, he’s awoken one night by a neighbor out calling for his lost dog. Trond heads outside to help and introduces himself to the man, who says his name is Lars. Not long after, in a voiceover that reveals much of Trond’s sentiments and perspectives throughout the film, he admits that he knows “Lars is Lars.” It’s a small revelation in the moment, but we soon come to learn just how meaningful it is, as the film rewinds to the summer of 1948 and the time he spent with his father (Tobias Santelmann) chopping timber with his father in northern Norway. In the shadow of World War II, Trond (the teenage version played by Jon Ranes) befriends the neighbor Jon (Sjur Vatne Brean), his father and younger twin brothers, Odd and Lars (Torjus Hopland Vollan). Yes, that Lars. And so, the mystery is both unearth and just beginning.
Tragedy strikes close to home (the trailer alludes to it but I won’t spoil it here), and soon Trond and his father are grieving with Jon and his family even as they navigate their own family dramas still unfolding from events during the war. The title of the film (and novel) reference the mild trouble Trond and Jon are up to that took Jon away from home when the accident occurs, apparently a common, relatively harmless past time in mid-century rural Norway. By summer’s end, there’s been more than a fair share of additional incidents, from illicit affairs to dangerous run-ins with the powerful river the men rely on to transport their felled lumber. It’s all a lot for anyone to weather, and all these traumas soon add up for each of them in their own way. Eventually, Trond’s father sends him home via bus and train, assuring him he’ll be meeting him there in short order. But Trond quickly understands that this isn’t to be the case, and he and his mother resolve to figure out a life without their father or husband.
The film’s contemporary scenes aren’t many, but they deftly offer a depth to Trond’s life experiences; Out Stealing Horses could easily be two films: one that just focuses on Trond’s childhood in the years after World War II, or similarly one that only focuses on his later years, after his wife has died, his children are grown and he’s looking back on his time on Earth. Combined, the two timelines create a vivid portrait of a troubled man doing his best to understand all that’s happened to him, all that he’s been guilty of, all that he witnessed in his most formative years. Though the voiceover does a lot of the heavy lifting to help us understand exactly how Trond is feeling, Skarsgård delivers a reliably compelling performance in the film’s most poignant moments. Eventually, Lars realizes who Trond, his new neighbor, is, too, and the two older men find themselves unearthing emotions and memories each has long since tried to move on from. But these are the things that define us as humans, that things that shape us and define us, and even these two men can’t escape how their shared history has shaped their individual lives.
It’s a trying time to release a film as nuanced and, honestly, as heavy as Out Stealing Horses. The film opens today on virtual cinemas (allowing a time-limited rental to watch from home while a portion of your “ticket” purchase goes back to support the theater), and it might not be many folks’ idea of a good time for a weekend movie night at home. But there’s more than enough reason to consider discovering this one; at the very least, it’s a welcome change of pace from whatever you’ve been binging on Netflix recently. More than that, it’s a worthy meditation on the span of a single life and all the moments of trauma, discovery and reflection that color it.
Out Stealing Horses is now available through Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema.