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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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The poster for Of Horses and Men looks like a crude joke at first glance. But you’ll notice that nobody’s laughing, and in fact the body language of the man makes it look more like a Greek Tragedy. It’s a shocking, intriguing invitation to see the stories Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s tells about horses and men.

Locals and Visitors

Crude, funny, or shocking, the poster image intrigues
Crude, funny, or shocking, the poster image intrigues

A community in Iceland live their lives around horses. Several vignettes involving about a dozen different characters show different aspects of equestrianism.

The most prominent character is Krossin (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), who at the beginning proudly rides a white mare to a neighbor’s house. Icelandic horses have a special gait and it’s interesting to see the small horse delivering her rider with such dainty poise.

After tea with Solveig (Charlotte Bøving) and her son, Krossin rides home, but along the way Solveig’s black stallion has his way with Krossin’s mare (while he sits helplessly astride). I don’t think you can use the word “rape,” but neither human being is at all happy about the pairing, and drastic measures are sought.

A silly segment shows one Icelander swimming his horse out to sea to meet a ship where he buys “vodka” from the Russian seamen who try to explain that the alcohol is “not vodka” but something stronger.

Another segment shows a feud between two old men, one disgusted by an illegal barbed wire fence blocking a remote national trail, the other the farmer who had carefully erected the fence.

A Spanish tourist on a bicycle keeps seeing locals with their horses. He decides he wants to go riding, and has a bad experience.

Landscapes without Arcs, Horses without Men

One of the most notable things about Of Horses and Men is that there isn’t a story arc. There are little vignettes that overlap around the edges, but the movie doesn’t have much of a shape or direction. That’s a structure I usually dislike in a movies, finding them hard to get lost in.

But Of Horses and Men does have form. There is a touchstone shot, repeated half a dozen times: a close-up of a horse’s eye, reflecting an image introducing the next segment.

Quite often Erlingsson and cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson will choose the horse over the person in framing a shot. A horse’s steamy stare is captured while the man’s head is cut off by the frame. Another horse glides with determination, only the feet of its rider visible in the frame.

The dainty gait contrasts with the rugged landscape
The dainty gait contrasts with the rugged landscape

In this setting the horses almost seem stunted, as though evolution has shaped them for the northern cold; Icelandic faeries next to their muscular ogre cousins in the mid-latitude deserts.

A dry wit notices that the people, too, are humbled. Dignity is sometimes a casualty to survival. The characters are mostly down-to-earth locals, with weathered faces that look like they come from Iceland — no ringers from central casting here. Their cozy settlements of geometric boxes with bright red roofs stand in defiance of the rugged landscape. Little flashes from the houses across the valley are established as reflections from the binoculars of concerned or nosy neighbors, keeping the community connected.

Who Knew?

There’s always a little sense of mystery and surprise, too — at least to those of us unfamiliar with rural Icelandic horsemanship. Who knew horses could swim that far? Who knew they could get rocks in their shoes? Who knew you could corral them with a simple piece of string?

Maybe that isn’t much to build a movie on. But Of Horses and Men is a real European original. It’s sure to have something you’ve never seen before. And at only 77 minutes, it’s hardly a taxing experiment.