The near symbiotic relationship between humans and their equine friends is one of the oldest in the history of our species. Without horses as pack animals and vehicles, mankind would certainly not have made it where we have. But, for all the humanity in horses, they still often get treated like mere animals and it’s this idea that is at the heart of the Icelandic comedic-drama Of Horses and Men, which was submitted to the Oscars last year and was screened at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The film proudly ends (and should have said at the beginning) with a card that says no animals were harmed in the making of the film, and everyone involved in the movie is a horse owner or lover. This is good to know because some not good things happen to some of these horses.
Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, Hross í oss (its Icelandic title) has the kind of tone and temperament you can only find in movies made in the northernmost part of the world. I always find it funny how much death plays a part in Scandinavian films and while Iceland, I realize, is not part of Scandinavia, its filmic output still shares this quality. Death is all over this film, and all of the deaths are tragic, but there’s also a weird sense of light humor going throughout as well. Just as many humans die as horses, but the horse deaths impact us a lot more, I think because the animals are innocents and the humans are stupid.
The film takes place in a picturesque pastoral valley community where everybody watches everybody else with binoculars, and the raising and caring of horses is the primary activity. We follow various people in vignettes and then come back to them in others, each involving a different horse. An extreme closeup of that particular horse’s eye begins each of the segments, though whether that horse makes it to the end is never certain. The first vignette is of a man courting a single mother (whether she’s a widow or a divorcee is never said, though we can assume widow given the rest of the film) by showing off his prize pony, who runs in a manner I’ve never seen before. While he is inside the house chatting up the woman, her stallion gets a look at the man’s mare and decides he wants himself a piece, leading to one of the more awkward moments in any film ever (you can see it below) and that, in turn, leads to an embarrassment-fueled act of violence which sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Some of the other vignettes include an alcoholic stealing a horse to go out into the sea to get vodka from a passing Russian cargo vessel; a Latin American tourist trying to ride to impress a girl and then getting lost in the frigid tundra; that girl, who doesn’t get much respect from the horse-pro men, needing to retrieve a brace of runaway ponies; two men fighting over whether or not barbed wire fences are in the park laws; and the annual horse roundup. The segments all flow together nicely, and we do get a sense of this tiny little town and the people in it, even if some of them aren’t people we’d probably like to know for very long.
The amazing horses in the film come off as far more sympathetic than the people, and far less hampered by unimportant foibles, but you also become painfully aware that these animals, for all their personality and spirit, are ultimately dependent on their humans, and we feel horrible when the bad things happen to them. It’s like we’re watching these weird people through the eyes of these majestic, beautiful, soulful animals, and they’re just as confused about it as we are.
Now I feel the need to point out that there are scenes of extreme violence in relation to the horses. These scenes are so well done that it actually made me think they might ACTUALLY have been doing horrible things to horses. The disgusted and outraged scoffs of people behind me made me think I wasn’t alone. However, the filmmakers tell us proudly that no horse was harmed in any way. It’s a testament to the quality of the filmmaking, as well as the compelling nature of these animals, that I bought into it so thoroughly. There’s also a fair amount of full-on horse dong on display. Keep all of that in mind if you see it; it’s not for the faint of heart.
I definitely recommend you see this movie if you get the chance, if for no other reason than to see horses by the dozen, and a different breed than we’re used to seeing over here in the U.S. The way in which the horse as a creature is used by these silly and petty people and manages to remain noble and stately was my biggest takeaway. They’re smart animals, probably in their way much smarter than we are.