Hans Petter Moland is probably the most interesting film maker we’ve had from Norway or indeed Scandinavia in the last thirty years. The reason he’s unknown and Lars Van Trier is a part of critic speak is that nobody seems to connect the dots when writing about Moland. I can understand the problem. It was hard work to track down his Kjærlighetens kjøtere/Zero Kelvin (1995), Aberdeen (2000), The Beautiful Country (2004), En ganske snill mann/A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010), Kraftidioten/In Order of Disappearance (2014) as well as Moland’s US remake Cold Pursuit (2019), an impressive collection which I’ve had to chase through festivals, national weeks and late night TV. This may be why the few English language reviews of his new Ut og stjæle hester/Out Stealing Horses all seem to take something different away from it. Well that makes an agreeable change from the usual “all together now” response.
We start with recent widower, sixty-seven year old Stellan Skarsgård, the director’s regular collaborator in the wintery thrillers that make up the best work of both. He’s contemplating his isolated existence in what we learn was once his father’s summer cabin, now run down and snow covered. His solitude is disturbed by the appearance of Bjørn Floberg, another senior Moland regular, and they get into a dialogue about (very Scandinavian) shooting dogs which appears extraneous but will later locate a key moment in a way that many of the film’s wide spaced incidents don’t get anchored.
It takes a while to figure Floberg’s character as the ten-year-old Torjus Hopland Vollan in his mother’s dress and carrying a rifle. Skarsgård wakes convinced that snow is falling inside his bedroom - it’s that kind of film. We get a complex three timezone study of something which could pass for the Norwegian experience - Nazi Occupation, 1956 communing with nature and l999 (complete with millennium bug reference) frozen solitude.
The flashes back and forward come complete with atmosphere inserts - plants shriveled in the snow cut to them blooming in spring sunshine, water freezing in accelerated motion. The key scenes offer Skarsgård’s character at fifteen, played by Jon Ranes, spending the summer in the timber country with his hedonist dad Tobias Santelmann who rubs himself with stinging nettles and tells the boy that he must choose what he takes away from experiences. Father and son improvise a shower soaping up in the pouring rain naked and the kid goes galloping with Vollan’s older brother Sjur Vatne Brean on borrowed horses in a place where sun is filtering through the trees, clear rushing water and enough close ups of bugs to outshine a Luis Buñuel film.
It’s all very Scandi. As if Victor Sjöstrom’s Professor Borg’s Wild Strawberries hallucinatory flashbacks were an Arne Sucksdorff nature film. However, here the bunny hopping through the grass is food for the circling eagle or the beautiful spotted owl they film. It is also a place of betrayal and danger - crashing timber, jagged edged saws, axes and barbed wire.
Two of the neighbors have central roles, Brean and his mother Danica (All Inclusive) Curcic, who has only three lines of dialogue but dominates as she does in her scenes in this Scandinavian event’s Department Q movie Fasandræberne. Moland’s camera notes her white slip revealing the tanned knees on which the river water is beading. A bit of Roger Vadim in here too.
A plot element that the film does explore is Santelmann felling the lumber which shades his cabin, against advice, in the summer when it is still full of sap and likely to sink in the river. They want to float it to mills in Sweden. Father and son follow along the bank and watch its progress halted by a log jam. This provides a foolhardy macho opportunity for suspense.
We also get to see Ranes’ drab urban mother Tone Beate Mostraum and his sister reduced to a single, brief, dialogue-free glimpse. Some of this is too obvious. Mostraum replaces the boy’s red sweater from the bucolic adventure with a black three piece Karlsbad suit bought with the meager returns of the logging.
Minimal attention also goes to Skarsgård’s off-screen marriage and the visit of his grown daughter who took immense trouble to locate him when he doesn’t even have a phone number, echoing Damien Nguyen’s search for Nick Nolte in The Beautiful Country. We never see the outcome for the Santelmann and Curcic characters but we spot the deep resentment their actions have caused in the old men.
The editing is particularly striking. The two close ups of the pin striking the rifle cartridge are not accompanied by the sound of the shot. Dialogue from one scene continues over the next in the manner of a seventies film like T.R. Baskin. The nature inserts which are a feature of the opening come to a stop.