“We decide for ourselves what will hurt”
Ah, the past and the memories it leaves us. Be they good or bad they make a home in our mind and soul, guiding our life decisions and shaping who we will become. Sometimes warm, sometimes dark, our remembrances become our true and constant life companions.
Hans Petter Moland’s adaptation of Per Petterson’s novel, “Out Stealing Horses” (Ut og stjaele hester) is a psychological rumination on the power of such memories.
It is a cold New Year’s Eve in 1999. Trond (Stellan Skarsgård) lives quietly in a small Norwegian town near the Swedish border. He moves slowly, his face giving away no emotion. Very much alone, this man is well-hidden in this dark and snowy town. This is obviously an existence of self-exile.
Trond is a man whose past has made him an emotional ghost. A widower, his life holds memories that try to drown him in his dreams and make his waking moments perfunctory. We are left to wonder if Trond lives just to wait for death so he can rid himself of the burden of his memories. Or perhaps he is just existing quietly and alone, taking in small pleasures (yet not outwardly acknowledging them) and passing the time.
Out of the cold darkness that past comes into the present when Trond meets his neighbor Lars (Bjørn Floberg). The two men knew one another when they were young. It was the Summer of 1948 and that would be the year where everything changed for these two men.
Trond spent the Summer of 48 with his father (Tobias Santelmann). The two spent their time in the sun-soaked beauty of nature. Trond would help his father with his timber work and both would become one with the breathtaking forests of Norway.
For a recreation that represented a Buddhist- like freedom of mind and spirit, he and his young friend Jon would steal horses from their landlord and run them wild amongst the beautiful landscapes.
Rasmus Videbæk’s cinematography in these moments is quite stunning and purposely in stark contrast to the bleakness of Trond’s older life. These moments are pure and untouched. Videbaek allows them to burst with color and sunshine, as these are the only thoughts that free Trond from the burden of his sadness and disconnect with the world.
While the obviousness of the photographic symbolism (Trond’s young life is sunlit beauty while his older life is colder and darker) eventually bogs the film down in an unshakable melodramatic sheen, Molland manages to make the human drama play very well.
As the older Trond and Lars talk together, we learn that Summer would lead Trond on a journey of suffering while Lars would find his life devastated by a family tragedy.
Young Trond’s relationship with his father teaches him many things. They truly love one another but as all human beings are far from perfect, his father has unresolved pain from the war that has not yet fully distanced itself from the country.
Trond begins to see the complexities of his father’s personality. He is overly angry at times and quite selfish when it comes to his life before he had his son.
When tragedy hits Lars’ family, Trond and his father become emotionally involved and the somewhat wistful Summer (and Trond’s free-spirited youth) ends abruptly due to betrayals and abandonments.
Death will follow Trond all of his life, only to return when he is a married adult. Stellan Skarsgård is quite good as the distant and haunted Trond. The actor has always been adept at playing haunted characters and this role is no exception. Trond’s weathered face can’t mask a lifetime of pain and the actor brings it off.
Molland and Skarsgård have a unique bond and as filmmaker and actor. They seem to have found that rare magic that perfectly pairs actor and director on interesting cinematic projects. This isn’t one of their top collaborations, but it is still a potent one that proves their skill as a filmmaking pair.
“Out Stealing Horses” has moments of Malick-esque beauty fueled by deep-rooted emotion. It is a film tinted with nostalgia but one that goes for a deeper humanistic core.
“Out stealing horses” is an evocative drama that digs deep into the pain of the past revealing one man reaching the final stretch of his life. The ghosts of his past do not haunt him, they walk beside him. Facing the final chapter of his life, we wonder if he has now found what peace he can allow himself and has welcomed their presence.
It is in the film’s final shot, a hold on Trond’s face, where I am reminded of lyrics written by the late Warren Zevon,
“All life folds back
Into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of heaven”