Out Stealing Horses is a lame prestige film knockoff that trades in empty platitudes.
Based on the acclaimed 2003 Norweigan novel of the same name, the decades-spanning drama Out Stealing Horses comes suffused with pedigree. Directed by Hans Petter Moland (In Order of Disappearance, Aberdeen), currently one of Norway’s most successful filmmakers, and starring Stellan Skarsgaard, the film seemed built for commercial success. But something has gone wrong in the translation from page to screen; what was powerfully nuanced in print has been reduced to a trite and tiresome offering. As a whole, the film superficially scans like one of those prestige fall flicks that has been produced solely to win Oscars, and that soullessness is present within every gorgeously-rendered shot. Put more clearly, Out Stealing Horses has the distinct flavor of a Joe Wright or Stephen Daldry flick. Skarsgaard stars as Trond, a despondent older gentleman who has moved to some snowy solitude in Norway to live out the rest of his life in isolation following the tragic death of his wife several years prior. Taking place on the eve of the 21st century, because this film never met a metaphor it couldn’t beat to death, Trond finds himself taking stock of his life after encountering a neighbor he may or may not know from his childhood.
Part of the problem here lies in the presentation of events, as the narrative is built around endless cuts between past and present. And so, after this initial setup, we are thrust backwards, specifically to a summer in 1948 that changed Trond forever, because this is the type of story in which people are changed forever. There’s no doubt that being 15 years old can be difficult, navigating the strange moment when childhood meets adulthood, and it was no different for Trond. For him, this was the time when he discovered the truth about his soon-to-be-deadbeat dad, the power of a sexy older woman in a wet dress, the perils of the Norwegian logging industry, and the importance of safeties on rifles. In the present, Out Stealing Horses concerns itself with how this summer still haunts Trond; Skarsgaard keeps intoning in monotonous voiceover that he is changing, and it frightens him, but the flashbacks are never properly utilized to inform the present. As a result, the film is left centerless, collapsing instead into a melange of golden-hour vistas and trite platitudes about life. Then again, it’s not entirely surprising given the litany of Dr. Phil-approved clichés here such as, “Let go,” “You choose when it hurts,” and “Never look back at the past with bitterness.” At one point the film even outright quotes the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Indeed, the two works share a remarkably similar message, but one is the work of a revered literary genius while the other seems like the product of an author who read Dickens and thought, “Cool!” Out Stealing Horses is far too composed to be an outright failure, but it’s precisely that modicum of understanding that also makes it such a lame, frustrating slog.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | August 2020.