The County foregoes nuance of character and narrative in favor of a feel-good construction.
I don’t know much about the history of the co-op farming system in Iceland — which began in the 19th century and persisted for decades before largely collapsing in the 1990s — and Grimur Hákonarson’s new film, The County, doesn’t do much to change that. Loosely based on stories of the last large-scale co-op still standing, The County was filmed in Iceland’s rural northwest, some distance from the metropolitan Reykjavík. It’s a story about rural survival and oppressive capitalist systems, certainly issues of universal contemporary importance. Unfortunately, here’s a case where a documentary on the subject might have been more interesting than the scattered, tepid fictionalized version that we get here. Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) are dairy farmers who are deeply in debt to their co-op, which has encouraged them to buy new technology, but in turn charges them exorbitant fees for supplies. The co-op refuses to allow farmers to purchase goods from any other source, even if the price is cheaper, and blacklists any farmers found circumventing this rigged system. When Reynir is killed in a trucking accident, Inga mounts a one-woman assault against the co-op, attacking them on social media, comparing them to the mafia, and otherwise agitating the powers that be. Hákonarson leans too hard on the David vs. Goliath angle here, making the co-op brash, mustache-twirling villains and the farmers themselves pure, salt-of-the-earth victims of an oppressive system.
There are interesting elements, including some long sequences that show Inga at work, in simple, unadorned documentary style. Hákonarson has a nice eye for clean, precise framing (the wintery, barren landscape is particularly beautiful) and careful compositions, but he also indulges in scenes that are pulled straight from a thriller — Inga is terrorized at night by co-op thugs — as well as awkwardly placed comedic beats. There’s a lot of tonal whiplash in The County that seems intended, mainly, to goose the audience. The film’s last act is crammed with incident, as a new dairy co-op — organized by Inga — mobilizes, leading to a series of rousing speeches, a climactic vote, and…an unspectacular shrug of a finale. Frankly, there’s enough plot here to fill a TV miniseries, and the truncated runtime (the movie is less than 90 minutes long) doesn’t leave anything room to breathe. Egilsdóttir gives a fine performance as the salty Inga, and the film comes to life when she aggressively demands answers from the co-op directors. But nothing adds up here in any kind of meaningful way. Everything fits just a little too neatly, without any of the rough edges or compromises that make up life under modern capitalism. There’s a story to tell about the ambitious, labor-friendly, even utopian idea of the co-op practice, and how it has been corrupted by greed, but that’s not really explored. It’s particularly frustrating how Facebook is shown purely as a force for social good, and the notion that engaging in some platonic ideal of free-market capitalism is inherently desirable skirts far too many right-wing ideologies. Hákonarson wants to streamline all these complicated ideas into a feel-good story. In the process, though, he winds up doing his characters and his audience a grave disservice.
Originally published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 4.