We never know what we’ll be able to brush off or force ourselves to forget and what will eat at us until our dying day.
We can’t even know, as Dickens’ David Copperfield mused, “Whether I’ll be the hero of my own life.”
But Trond, the old man “hero” of “Out Stealing Horses,” still wonders if his father, long ago, got it right when as a boy Trond refused to pull up thorny nettles on Dad’s farm.
“You decide for yourself when it will hurt.”
The film is Per Petterson’s novel is as intimate as a memory play, with the scale of a chamber drama and the scope of half a century of personal and family history. It’s an essay in Scandinavian stoicism set in a coming-of-age story remembered by an elderly Norwegian widower (Stellan Starsgärd) who has resettled in Sweden.
He has “lived to be alone in a place like this,” and now — two years widowed — he is out in the Swedish boondocks, alone with his dog and his thoughts. Only one of those is any comfort to him.
Weeds — nettles included — take him from the 1999 present to 1948, his father’s Norwegian hobby farm parked in the woodlands of the Norwegian-Swedish border. Trond (Jon Ranes) was 15, and he has his and Dad (Tobias Santelmann) are to bond over a summer in a remote corner of the world where farming is still largely done by hand and neighbors are obliged to help neighbors.
The foreboding that hangs over this bucolic scene is the recent past — World War II, when Norway was occupied by the Germans and Sweden a Nazi-friendly neutral — life-altering accidents and Trond learning things about himself and his father that will haunt him into his solitary dotage.
Adapter-director Hans Petter Moland (“In Order of Disappearance”) skillfully cuts back and forth in time, from the wintry present, where Trond becomes reacquainted with a neighbor from back then and muses over what they both experienced, and the tensions the adult Trond recognizes now that his 15 year-old self was slow to discover.
His favorite teen idyll was going “out stealing horses” (in Swedish and Norwegian, with English subtitles) with a neighbor boy, which meant figuring out ways to mount another neighbor’s herd without benefit of a saddle, or the horses’ cooperation.
But the one day aged Trond goes back to in his mind is troubling and scarring, and not just because he got tossed into barbed wire by a mount. Somebody died. Something about his father and a neighbor lady (Danica Curcic) came to light.
Moland has been wise to stake so much of his career on Skarsgärd, even if this adaptation is the weakest of their collaborations.
The director leans too heavily on voice-over narration, but that has a little something to do with a big theme of this story. Every character acts repressed, reluctant to say out loud or openly express their longing, hurt and worry.
Guilt is the one characteristic that everybody shares, from the little boy who survived a traumatic childhood accident to become Trond’s new neighbor (Bjørn Floberg) to a married woman almost mortally betrayed by her then husband, a father who knows he will abandon his family and a kid who grows up to see his guilty part in everybody else’s unhappiness.
The most moving moments surround a death, with no one — adult or child — equipped to speak about it. The smallest boy literally runs away from his responsibility for it, even at the funeral.
All that said, “Out Stealing Horses (Ut og stjæle hester)” is too subdued for its own good, too stuck in Trond’s head, with his narration, to ever break through. The odd moving moment in a stunning setting — set pieces center around the dangers of small-farm logging — is surrounded by a lot that’s implied, and too little that’s shown.
And what incidents there are play mostly as straight-up melodrama.
Moland has made a movie as repressed as his characters, and even the “triumph” of that becomes a bit much for the viewer to bear.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult themes, some violence
Cast: Stellan Skarsgärd, Danica Curcic, Jon Ranes, Bjørn Floberg, Tobias Santelmann
Credits: Written and directed by Hans Petter Moland, based on a novel by Per Petterson. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 2:03