Rams takes place at the end of the world, but it’s a place that means all the world to the two brothers at its center. In rural Iceland, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) operate neighboring sheep farms, where each lives alone. Their solitary life is heightened by the fact that they haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years.
Writer-director Grímur Hákonarson captures this feud in quietly humorous ways. En route to a ram-judging contest, Gummi opens the gate at the end of the road he and Kiddi share, only to have Kiddi roar past him on his all-terrain vehicle without so much as a nod of thanks. At the contest, Kiddi and Gummi place first and second respectively, and the forlorn look on Gummi’s face as he stands beneath his brother at the podium tells us everything we need to know about their poisoned relationship.
Rams gradually grows more serious, similar to the way Hákonarson’s camera often begins in elegant wide shot and almost imperceptibly moves in for a closer look (albeit one that is equally elegantly framed). This is no wacky family feud. Indeed, as Rams goes on, it struck me less as a comedy than as a variation on Brother’s Keeper, the 1992 documentary about hermit siblings in upstate New York, one of whom is accused of murdering another.
Sigurjónsson, as Gummi, is our window into this world, and he gives a riveting performance—especially considering he has little dialogue and most of his face is shadowed by beard. Hákonarson gives him a breakdown scene that he absolutely nails, yet just as effective are the many moments when he establishes character via action: the way his instinct is to caress his sheep and only handle them roughly when he absolutely needs to; the way he responds to Kiddi shooting his window out by matter-of-factly replacing the pane of glass; the way he hums to himself while preparing a lonely Christmas dinner, as if he’s saved the sound of his own voice for this one day of the year.
In regard to his breakdown, then, you might wonder: what could be so traumatizing in the life of a sheep farmer that would cause a stoic man like Gummi to lose control? Without sharing details, I’ll say that it’s related to the discovery of “scrapie”—a devastating disease—among the sheep in this valley. At first this is cause for more antagonism between the brothers, as Kiddi refuses to cooperate with the government’s orders to slaughter their herds and sanitize their farms. But then there is a development that brings their shared heritage to the fore and encourages—well, maybe not reconciliation, but at least cooperation.
It’s here that Rams is elevated from an observant, slice-of-life drama to something almost biblical, especially in its consideration of feuding brothers and family covenant. Life has been long and harsh for these two men, especially as they’ve drifted apart. And true to the hardscrabble landscape it beautifully depicts, Rams refuses to provide Gummi and Kiddi with a soft place to land. But the movie does suggest, in its ambiguous final moments, that the only way for them to survive will be by clinging to each other.