Movie Review: “Out Stealing Horses”

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a movie where Stellan Skarsgård puts in a brief appearance.  I noted that the movie was gorgeous and well-considered.  I also talked about how it was desperately bleak and how I had no desire to see it again.  I stated that “being great and being horrific are not mutually exclusive.”  I am happy to report this week, that Skarsgård makes many movies and arriving on VOD on Friday is one in which he not only plays a far larger role, but which is also far more satisfying to watch.

A corollary to all of the above should be obvious, but it probably is worth stating nonetheless – “more ” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.”  There is a sometimes difficult calculus when it comes to reviewing a film, a calculus that is all too easily ignored by focusing on star ratings and fresh vs. rotten tomatoes.

Let us therefore ignore all notions of better and worse and look instead at one film as it stands.

“Out Stealing Horses” is written and directed by Hans Petter Moland, based on the book by Per Petterson.  The focus of the story is Skarsgård’s Trond.  We meet Trond in 1999, as he lives in isolation in Norway (having spent much of his life in Sweden).  Skarsgård provides a voiceover throughout the movie, discussing his present life and reminiscing about the summer of 1948, when he turned 15.  He spent that summer with his father (Tobias Santelmann) as Trond’s mother (and still wife to his father), was back at home with Trond’s sister.

There is a rather silly explanation offered for all this, but it is instantly made clear that Trond’s father is seeing someone, specifically, the mother of one of Trond’s friends.  Young Trond (Jon Ranes), doesn’t get it at first, but over the course of the movie he works it out.

I am, sadly, getting bogged down in plot, and I ought not.  The wonder of “Out Stealing Horses” is not the coming of age story, but rather the ability of Moland to weave together all these disparate moments in Trond’s tale.  We not only regularly slide back and forth between 1999 and 1948, but there are other time jumps thrown in as well.  In 1948 we hear people tell stories (and see them take place) from earlier, and in 1999 we jump back to Trond’s much more recent past as well.

It is a rite of every film student that at some point they read Sergei Eisenstein.  A film director in the early 20th Century, Eisenstein wrote (amongst other things presumably) about montage, and all the different types of montage that exist (there are, he said, five of them).  After reading about this, film students are then forced to watch the “Odessa Steps” sequence from Eisenstein’s film, “Battleship Potemkin,” which offers up a clear example of an attempt to produce an emotional response from how shots are put together.

I tell you of this to now say that Moland’s use of montage in “Out Stealing Horses” is truly wonderful. Repeatedly we see images flick through older Trond’s mind as he is doing something else.  More than once these images are later woven into the narrative to help create the story Trond is telling.  Not only are they often beautiful and sometimes scary, the images pose questions to the viewer.  We find ourselves wondering about Trond and his state of mind as a recluse in 1999.  Are these things he is thinking of for the first time in 50 years or are they things that have haunted him throughout his life?  How do these moments we see juxtapose themselves with what we learn of Trond’s life during the intervening years?

The montages provide a glimpse into the mind of Trond and propel us forward into the next bit of his story.  They are emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

The effect here is somewhat reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge’s line in “A Christmas Carol” about living in the past, the present, and the future.  There is something about this understanding of time, and how so many different elements make us who we are, that lends itself to a more full, rich, view of individuals.  We understand Trond better not because we see him as a young man and as an adult, but rather because we see him see himself at these times.

None of this would work without the performances of Skarsgård, Ranes, and the rest of the cast.  They are the lynchpin used by Moland and his team including editors, Jens Christian Fodstad and Nicolaj Monberg, as well as cinematographer, Rasmus Vidbæk.

“Out Stealing Horses” may not have a ton to say that is new or different, but what it does say it puts eloquently.  We have not even mentioned to this point the score by composer Kaspar Kaae, but it, too, is a thing of beauty.

Is there an obligation now to return to my opening and mentioning of “A Painted Bird?”  Perhaps the rhythms of writing require such a thing.  But, I’d rather not.  That tilts things far more towards the comparisons I would like to avoid.  Consequently, I will ruin this particular written sort of montage.


photo credit: Magnolia Films


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