“The Summer of wonder”
Film review: Out Stealing Horses
The film Out Stealing Horses (2019) pivots around a short time in 1948 I would call “the summer of wonder.” It depicts the wonder of immersing yourself in nature during a sensual season juxtaposed with the wondering about the why and the what that caused your world to abruptly and irrevocably change during those same moments, making for a complicated and jarring experience.
The film opens with a panoramic view of a Norwegian forest. Stirring music fills the space as an evocative mist lifts, revealing what is hidden, a foretelling of what is to come. Out Stealing Horses is a sensory film, with cinematography that takes you on the journey of 15-year-old Trond Sander (Jon Ranes) and the last summer he shared with his father.
Based on the poignant and moving book of the same name by author Per Petterson, the film is directed by Hans Petter Moland. For this review, I will only be speaking in broad brushstrokes, focusing on themes and specific joyful scenes, so as not to ruin your journey before you have the opportunity to watch this movie for yourself.
The story unfolds through the eyes of 67-year-old Trond, played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. Upon his return to Norway after living in Sweden for 42 years, he befriends his neighbor Lars (Bjørn Floberg), making for strange bedfellows. But there is a bond between the two, and this connection to Trond’s earlier life is revealed through flashbacks.
Two blissful scenes stand out. The first is when young Trond and his friend Jon (Sjur Vatne Brean) go “out stealing horses.” Jon coaxes the horses toward a tree, while Trond is perched in a branch above, waiting for an opportune moment. Suddenly, he jumps onto a horse’s back directly below him, and off he flies. The sounds of rushing wind and galloping hooves fill your ears—pure joy. It should be noted that the boys are actually borrowing horses, not stealing them. This phrase will have a different and much more impactful meaning later in the film.
In the other scene, a rainstorm pours over the small cabin where both father and son are holed up. “Up for a shower?” asks dad (Tobias Santelmann), out of the blue. They race to strip off their clothes to see who can be first to dance naked in the rain—but not before soaping up inside, making it a practical endeavor as well. The scene ends with a competition to see who can hold a handstand longer.
The film does an unusually sensitive job in focusing on the rhythm of life in a small farming village, whether it be the cooperation of everyone when it is haymaking time, or a kitchen scene shot from behind. The father and his friend Franz (Gard B. Eidsvold) are doing the dishes side by side while singing the “Tennessee Waltz,” a quiet moment of human connection.
This film fills your senses. I especially appreciated its use of the auditory: rain rushing through metal gutters, the tempo of axes striking timber, and the swishing of threshing tall grass. The musical score, by Kaspar Kaae is lovely, adding tension and delight when needed.
This beautiful summer of wonder is deliberately a summer of men. Trond and his father are to share this time together, while his mother and sister remain back home. His father says it’s because he cannot think with women around.
However, there is one woman from town who neither son, nor father can ignore, the mother of Jon, Lars, and Odd and played by Danica Curcic. There is something awesome about her physicality, as she works side by side with the men, even assisting in the logging process, yet she remains caring, tender, and feminine. All her characteristics merge when we see her make the fateful decision to save an important resistance fighter (about five years prior), rowing him fiercely across the river with the Nazis in pursuit.
But inevitably, this coming-of-age story leads to jealousy and competition between father and son. Trond has a crush on this very same woman, who he surprisingly learns has shared time with his father in the past.
Their most edgy experience occurs when they are following the timber they felled, which is being transported downriver to Sweden for sale. They see a log jam. Trond takes the initiative, plunging into the river, a dangerous task. His father is caught off guard but does not hover or interfere. Instead, he cautiously scampers alongside the river’s course, allowing his son to succeed and grow without him.
Here the men are compassionate, complicated, thoughtful, and tactile, and it is a refreshing change from how men are usually depicted. One telling moment occurs at a burial for Lars’ twin brother, Odd (Torjus Hopland Vollan). Lars breaks from his mother’s embrace and starts skipping around the tombstones humming. Everyone sees this behavior but remains immobilized, except Franz, who corrals and stills Lars in his arms, soothing and settling him down.
Acceptance is also a strong element in this film. There is the scene where Trond and his mother are on their way to Sweden to retrieve a sum left for them by the father and husband, who has abandoned them. After counting the money, the mother matter-of-factly explains it is a small sum but emphasized that they have had a great trip to Sweden. She adds that they cannot take the money back to Norway for legal reasons and have to spend it here. Without batting an eye, she heads to an upscale store with Trond to buy him a nice fitted suit, a symbol of coming of age.
Perhaps this woman’s strength, gratitude, and largesse are a consequence of the times in which she has lived, through the Depression and occupation of Norway. She knows of life’s uncertainty and temporal nature firsthand.
This film, a formidable feast for the senses as it touches on the human condition. It offers the wisdom that in life the whys and what-ifs are not as important as the whats and what you choose to do with them are.
As Trond’s father teaches him, “You choose what hurts you,” and you should “never be bitter.” Out Stealing Horses takes common human experiences and offers them to us in such a beautiful package, delivering delightful and heart-wrenching moments as it slowly unwraps—a rare gift.
Out Stealing Horses was recently released in the United States. You can watch it at home from the film’s official website at www.outstealinghorses.com/watch-at-home.
To view a virtual film, talk at New York’s Scandinavia House with director Hans Petter Moland and acclaimed actor Liam Neeson, visit www.scandinaviahouse.org/events/out-stealing-horses-talk.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.