Movie Review: Out Stealing Horses (2019)

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Last month, after seeing and loving director Joseph Losey's 1971 film “The Go-Between,” I was asked on Twitter just what it was about the movie that I responded to so much. 

“It's hard to sum up in a tweet,” I replied and, by way of explanation of the film's finest qualities, added that I admired “the way that it unfolds slowly like a summer's day, brings you back to childhood being in rooms with adults having conversations you don't fully understand, coming-of-age and discovering love.”

And although those remarks described my reaction to “The Go-Between,” intriguingly, when I watched “Out Stealing Horses” this week to review, I realized that while writer-director Hans Petter Moland's adaptation of the bestselling book by Per Petterson was in no way as narratively successful as “The Go-Between,” what I loved most about Losey's film is exactly what drew me into this one.
A straightforward adaptation of Petterson's novel, “Out Stealing Horses” centers on Trond (played by the always outstanding Stellan Skarsgård), a sixty-seven-year-old grieving widower who moves out to the Norwegian countryside to live a solitary life. Shortly into the film, he discovers that his new imposing, slightly off neighbor (played by Bjørn Floberg) is none other than the younger brother of his best friend from childhood but since Trond chooses not to acknowledge this, we gather that this reunion is anything but joyous. A framing device shot with drab colors, dim lighting, and a general sense of malaise, the more “modern” sequences set in 1999 never really pull us in quite as well as Trond's recollections of life in the 1940s, which make up a bulk of the film.

With the rich shimmer of cerulean hued water and the lush, deep, jade-colored greenery of the surrounding trees, when fifteen-year-old Trond (Jon Ranes) skims his hand over the lake during the film's extended flashback, “Out Stealing Horses” nearly takes our breath away, thanks to the cinematography of Danish cameraman Rasmus Videbæk. Reveling in nature in a way that recalls the work of master director Terrence Malick, as we watch Trond and his father (a fine Tobias Santelmann) rely on rain for showers, boats for transportation, and trees for their prosperity in their wooded existence, we realize that their work chopping down tall trees serves as a terrific metaphor. 

For, just like the two men clear the woods while logging, with each tree they chop down, Trond begins to see the complexities of life a little more clearly as he comes of age. Following a shocking tragedy in the life of his best friend Jon's (Sjur Vatne Brean) family, which he uncovers on the day the two went “out stealing horses” – which just means going for a ride – Trond begins to realize that things aren't always what they seem. 

And this certainly hits home when his father insists that Trond's mother and sister should not join them in the countryside and Trond realizes this rule doesn't apply to all women. Observing but failing to fully process his father's closeness to Jon's mother (Danica Curcic) since – at the exact same time – he's developed a crush on the beautiful married woman as well, “Out Stealing Horses” is a languid yet engrossing account of a fateful summer.
As specifically tied to its time and place as the film is, just like Losey's “Go-Between,” and many other contemplative chronicles of an adolescent being thrust into adulthood when they realize that the most important people in their life are flawed individuals of flesh and blood, the thoughts and feelings that Moland's film conveys are universally relatable. Additionally, by emphasizing the ways that the events of our life – and in particular our role models – can shape us whether we want them to or not, the film will undoubtedly make us think about some of the big early turning points of our lives, which occurred before we could truly understand their significance or impact on others. 

Structurally challenged, while it takes a good half-hour or so to truly become invested in the plight of its characters since the 1999 sequences seem to belong to an entirely different movie, overall, it's an uneven yet ultimately compelling work anchored by Videbæk's romantic cinematography and uniformly strong turns by Ranes and Santelmann, in particular.

The fifth collaboration between Moland and Skarsgård might not be as thrillingly riveting as “In Order of Disappearance,” (which Moland later remade in the states with Liam Neeson as “Cold Pursuit”) or as emotionally draining as “Aberdeen,” but it's still an intensely personal work for the filmmaker.
A moderately cogent adaptation of Petterson's novel, which has been translated into more than fifty languages, the film's shortcomings left me wanting to read the book to get the full impact of the storyline. Yet Moland deserves credit nonetheless for transforming this very Norwegian tale into an emotional saga that we all can feel a kinship with even if we've never showered in the rain or chopped down a tree a day in our life.

Though hindered by the pacing of its opening act, “Out Stealing Horses” is at its best when it flashes back to Trond's life as he moves between childhood and adulthood and discovers the gray between the black and white that exists out there in the countryside amid all that blue and green.

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