A Film a Week - Out Stealing Horses / Ut og stjaele hester

Usually, I am a sucker for coming of age movies, but this one left me quite cold. Also, usually I know that a film review should not be in the first person, but what a writer should do when the film itself is very much in that form of storytelling, resembling a narrated and visualized novel. Everything happens for a reason, Hans Petter Moland's Out Stealing Horses is in fact an adaptation of a well-known novel written by Per Petterson and translated into 50 or so languages. But what works in literature does not necessarily translate well into film language.

The story starts on the turn of the millennium with a 60-something widower Trond (Moland's regular Stellan Skarsgard) living in a village in Norway after a long period of time spent in Sweden. A chance encounter with his neighbour Lars (Bjorn Floberg) sends him down the memory lane to the summer of '48 which changed everything. The two man knew each other back then.

During that summer, the 15-year old Trond (Jon Ranes) lived with his father (played by Tobias Santelmann) helping him with the timber work and spending a lot of time in the nature. One of the favourite pastimes for Trond and his friend Jon (Sjur Vante Brean) was "stealing" the horses (hence the title) from the local landlord, but it was more for the sake of the thrill of riding them. A tragedy occurring between the two of Jon's brothers would set a string of events and disappointments in motion affecting both Trond and his father and revolving around Jon's mother (Danica Ćurčić), since both the father and the son have a crush on her.

There is a moment of wisdom early on which is central for the novel, the film and Trond's formation as a person. This is the moment when the father explains to him, while forcing him to clear the pathway through the nettles, that every person chooses if and when something will hurt. That pretty much explains the philosophy of the father, a Resistance fighter and a natural born adventurer who can also be a lousy father and a lousy person and it also explains the way Trond deals with the tragedies that would happen to him later in life.

That sort of wisdom, however corny it might be, is not the primary reason for the film leaving its viewer cold. Neither is its predominantly sombre tone and slow pace. Neither are the technical aspects and aesthetics of the cold to blame: Rasmus Vidbaek's cinematography catches the essence of the beauty, both cold and summery warm, and the right nuance to point to the danger that lies beneath it, the production design done by Jorgen Stangbye Larsen is also quite fitting, while Kasper Kaae's score adds more emotion to the drama.

The reason for cold feeling probably lies in the film's structure, an abundant use of the voice-over narration, making it pretty much a meandering monologue and a lot of time-hopping between the different plots (of sorts), going to the extent of having a flashback within a flashback. While those devices look quite good in a book, they lose a lot of the appeal on a screen. Moland probably wanted to remain faithful to the source novel and to keep its meditative value. He certainly gets a lot of help from his actors, Skarsgard by himself and in an interplay with Floberg is simply stellar, while the burden of keeping the nostalgic plot line together is distributed more equally, with Santelmann having the "meatiest" part. The trouble is that that type of cinematic meditation is not Moland's forte. After all, he is at his best as a genre filmmaker.

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