At several points in “Out Stealing Horses,” a seemingly bland observation turns out to carry far more cutting emotional weight. “Fathers are great,” says one old man to another, shortly before an enfolded series of revelations that suggests both men can hardly believe such a thing. “That’s life, things happen,” says a father to a son, knowing full well that nothing in the immediate future is going to happen quite as it should. Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s international bestseller made a bittersweet virtue of such plain language, evoking the inner lives of men not much good at articulating themselves; Hans Petter Moland’s loving film adaptation, meanwhile, effectively plays lush visual storytelling against its characters’ desolate interiors.
The result is a heartfelt, attractive arthouse item that ought to travel as widely as its much-translated source novel, boosted by the internationally familiar presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead role of 67-year-old widower Trond, who retreats into painful childhood memories when he relocates to the remote Norwegian countryside. Darting back and forth across a timeline spanning nearly 60 years, Moland honors Petterson’s flexible, fragmented narrative structure, looping across time as Trond’s troubled consciousness dictates. It all works, however, a little less economically than it does on the page. Where Petterson elegantly knotted an intersecting collection of difficult family histories together in under 300 pages, the film feels a tad ponderous at just over two hours, even with some judicious pruning of the text.
The grandeur of the filmmaking, however, offers its own rewards, beginning with Rasmus Vidbaek’s sumptuous widescreen lensing: The camera caresses the rural Norwegian landscape with enough tactile, transfixing detail to make us understand the complicated hold it exerts on Trond — who, as the film opens in 1999, has only recently returned to his homeland after an adult life spent mostly in neighboring Sweden. It’s a gleaming, snow-laden winter; Trond’s memory, however, keeps drifting back to the fervid, insect-scored summer of 1948, when he was 15 and hurtling toward the end of innocence. Seasonal change is hardly the freshest metaphor for mortality, but “Out Stealing Horses” makes you feel it with a shiver.
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Trond’s dour, self-imposed hermitry is disrupted by the presence of his similarly aged neighbor Lars (Bjørn Floberg), who alternates between quietly insistent observation and curious, abrupt oversharing — in circuitous conversation scenes that briefly call to mind the arch, offbeat comedy of such previous Moland films as “In Order of Disappearance.” (It’s harder to imagine this one being remade as a Liam Neeson actioner.) Elsewhere, a more sober, subtly rueful tone prevails. Gradually, the men realize they share more than present-day turf; they were neighbors for that distant childhood summer too, psychologically bound by tragedy that neither has been able to shake in the ensuing half-century.
As Trond and Lars see their families shattered and enmeshed by the season’s sequence of events, the coming-of-age tale that pivots on this combined crisis is suffused with the sad, growing sense that, for both boys, age came faster than understanding. Quoting the opening line of “David Copperfield” — “‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” — the latter-day Trond still seems uncertain of how his life has proceeded. This is delicate, internalized drama, easier to realize on the page than on the screen, though both Skarsgard and Jon Ranes, a solemnly impressive newcomer, do a fine job of portraying Trond’s changing awareness at different ages, the performances aligned in their tense, sorrowful body language.
Yet even as it dawdles a little over its cat’s-cradle structure, “Out Stealing Horses” has a poignant understanding of time’s unreliable, tensile quality: What happened distant decades ago can, with a snap of the mind, feel newly, disturbingly raw. Moland and editors Jens Christian Fodstad and Nicolaj Monberg create dreamy, tissue-fine transitions between past and present — sometimes accelerating into nightmarish, dissociated montage, amped up by the nervous, bratsch-heavy quiver of Kaspar Kaae’s striking score.
“Out Stealing Horses” certainly finds Moland’s filmmaking in richer, more textural form than in “Cold Pursuit,” his peculiar, recently released self-remake of “In Order of Disappearance”; there’s care and considered poetry in its imagery and soundscape that betray the director’s deep-rooted affection for his material at every turn. If, perhaps, his script could stand to let a little more of it loose, this is a film with a mature, heartbroken understanding of how we hold onto things.