Review: ‘Gunda,’ a documentary about farm life from the perspectives of animals

April 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gunda and one of her piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)


Directed by Victor Kosakovsky

Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.

Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.

Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.

Two of Gunda’s piglets in “Gunda” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.

Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.

A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.

In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.

Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.

Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.

“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”

It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.

In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.

“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.

If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.

“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.

As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.

Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Mortal,’ starring Nat Wolff and Priyanka Bose

November 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Iben Akerlie and Nat Wolff in “Mortal” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)


Directed by André Øvredal

Some language in Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway, the sci-fi thriller “Mortal” features an almost all-white cast of characters (and one Indian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mysterious young man is hunted by authorities because he has a lethal ability to conduct energy and electricity through his body.

Culture Audience: “Mortal” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic sci-fi flicks that put more emphasis on visual effects than in crafting a good story.

Priyanka Bose in “Mortal” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Mortal” starts off as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick before it turns into a ludicrous off-the-rails story. Even before the plot twist is revealed in the last third of the movie, “Mortal” had too many weak links for it to be strengthened by the “surprise” ending. This plot twist actually makes the movie worse, because the ill-conceived, drastic turn in the story looks very tacked-on and rushed. It’s as if the filmmakers were desperate to come up with an ending to bring “Mortal” out its repetitive rut.

Directed by André Øvredal (who co-wrote the screenplay with Norman Lesperance and Geoff Bussetil), “Mortal” is essentially a sci-fi chase movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. The movie centers on an American man in his mid-20s named Eric Bergland (played by Nat Wolff), who is in Norway looking for his relatives. The details of his family aren’t revealed until toward the end of the movie, because it’s part of the plot twist.

And so, for almost the entire movie, viewers don’t know anything about Eric except that he’s homeless in Norway and he has a very strange and deadly power: He can conduct and transport energy (especially electrical energy) through his body, giving him the ability to start fires and cause electrical storms. In the beginning of the film, Eric is by himself, looking like he’s a dirty and disheveled vagrant who’s trying to hide from the world.

He trespasses into a home to steal some scissors, medicine, bandages and candy. He eats the candy as if he’s been starving for days. He uses the scissors to cut his hair. And he uses the medicine and bandages to treat a festering wound on his leg.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Eric can get burns on his body when he’s at his peak of energy-conducting power. Viewers will have to suspend disbelief that Eric can be burned everywhere on his body except his face, because nothing bad ever happens to his face except for the unfortunate straggly beard that Eric has at the beginning of the film.

At a gas station in the municipality of Odda, Eric catches the attention of four teenagers (three boys and a girl) in a car. A bullying guy named Ole (played by Arthur Hakalahti), who’s the leader of the group, taunts Eric for looking like the dirty transient that he is. The car then happens to follow Eric to an open field.

Ole gets out of the car, while the other teens follow him and Eric into the field. Ole continues to harass Eric, who warns Ole in an ominous voice: “If you touch me, you will burn.” But of course, Ole touches Eric. And when he does, Eric stares at Ole intensely, while Ole appears to be suffocating without Eric touching him. Ole then immediately collapses and dies.

Eric is quickly apprehended by authorities, who don’t find out much about Eric except for these three things: (1) He’s a backpacker from the United States, but he’s of Norwegian heritage; (2) He’s in Norway to look for his relatives; and (3) He was seen at a farmhouse in Årdal, a municipality in Norway’s Vestland county, where three years before, a fire killed five people at the house. Eric is suspected of starting the fire, but he’s not talking to law enforcement about what happened at that house.

The sheriff of Odda is Henrik Jondal (played by Per Frisch), who’s in charge of the investigation into the death of Ole. The police aren’t making any progress in interviewing Eric, because he refuses to say much to them, so Henrik has the idea to call someone who has experience counseling teenagers and other young people. The hope is that this counselor will be able to break through to Eric and get him to open up about the death of Ole.

The counselor’s name is Christine Aas (played by Iben Akerlie), and she looks like she’s approximately the same age as Eric. And as soon as she appears on screen, it’s easy to see that she’s going to be Eric’s love interest because she has the stereotypical physical appearance (young, blonde and pretty) of a love interest in a formulaic movie like this one.

Even though Christine looks young enough to only be a few years out of college, the movie has made her a whiz at diagnosing medical conditions because she figures out very quickly what Alex’s superpower is. Not long after Christine is put in a police interrogation room with Eric to ask him some questions, he goes from being mute to gasping remorsefully about Ole, “I tried to tell him not to touch me.”

Meanwhile, Henrik is in another section of the police station, where he’s dealing with the parents of Ole, who want answers about what caused Ole’s death. Ole’s father Bjørn (played by Per Egil Aske) is very angry because he knows that the police have Eric in custody as a suspect. (The arrest has been all over the news.) Bjørn demands to be in a room alone with Eric, but Henrik refuses. It’s pretty clear at this point that this won’t be the last we see of Bjørn, who might as well have worn a T-shirt that says “Vigilante Justice,” because that seems to be the only purpose for his character in this movie.

Back in the police interrogation room, Eric reaches for a glass of water, and Christine sees that he’s able to lift the water out of the glass, just by putting his hand above the glass. This gives him such electrical energy force throughout his body, that when Eric places his hands on the wooden table, it scorches the table. And then, Eric gets so upset, the entire room lights up with an electrical storm caused by Eric.

Christine tells Eric the obvious: The energy comes out when he’s experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, anger or anxiety. She tells him that he can control the energy if he just breathes and calms down and gets to a relaxed emotional state. Now that Little Miss Expert has diagnosed Eric’s problem in a matter of minutes, you almost expect her to say, “I’ll be right back. Let me get a yoga mat for you so we can do some breathing exercises.”

Henrik rushes in and witnesses the “electrical storm” in the room, and everyone rushes out before more damage can be caused. The authorities sedate Eric with medication. And a U.S. Embassy official named Cora Hathaway (played by Priyanka Bose) is summoned to take Eric by helicopter to a place that isn’t made clear in the movie because this movie’s screenplay is kind of a sloppy mess. However, viewers can assume that he’s going somewhere for scientific tests.

Eric is strapped to a gurney during the helicopter ride. But when he wakes up and sees that he’s essentially being imprisoned against his will, he goes crazy and creates such a big electrical storm that it causes the helicopter to crash into the ocean. Everyone on the plane dies except for Cora (who ends up in a hospital) and Eric, who has temporarily disappeared. Cora eventually gets released from the hospital and makes it her mission to track down Eric so he can be put back into the custody of the government.

Meanwhile, Eric shows up in the outdoor parking lot of the apartment building where Christine just happens to be at that moment. Somehow, in the short time that Christine and Eric have known each other, Eric has managed to find out where Christine lives. Viewers will have to assume that he was able to look up that information in between causing electrical storms, surviving a helicopter crash in the ocean, finding his way back to land, and then showing up at Christine’s place in the hopes that she’ll want to hang out with him while he’s a fugitive.

It turns out that Christine does want to hang out with Eric and help him elude capture by law enforcement. She tells him, “I’m going take you to my friend’s cabin, and we’re going to figure it out.” The rest of the movie is basically Eric and Christine going on the run together. There’s only one moment when Christine doubts her decision to help Eric, but she shows the kind of immediate loyalty to him that makes it obvious she’s romantically attracted to him. Eric and Christine’s inevitable “big moment” kiss comes later in the movie.

Wolff is serviceable in this poorly written role. He tries to infuse a “lost soul” persona into Eric’s character, but the character is so vague that it’s a wasted effort to try to bring gravitas to the role. The problem is that “Mortal” tells almost nothing about Eric and his background until toward the end of the film, which makes it hard for viewers to root for Eric while he tries to evade capture. The other actors in the film are mediocre, while Bose is just plain awful with her emotionless, wooden delivery of her lines.

And speaking of the U.S. Embassy official Cora, it doesn’t make sense that she would be heading up the task force to find Eric. Embassy officials are political diplomats, not law enforcement or part of a government’s military defense. Based on all the destruction that Eric causes in the movie, the Norwegian military would be the ones to take over if a seemingly crazy guy was out there causing electrical storms that are bad enough to burn bridges, roads, buildings and people.

Even though Cora has seen firsthand how dangerous Eric can be, she wears no protective gear the entire time that she’s trying to hunt him down. She’s dressed as if she’s about to go for a nature hike. And the only indication that she survived a traumatic plane crash in the ocean is that she has a small band-aid on her forehead. Yes, this movie is that stupid.

As for Eric’s big “secret” at the end of the movie, it looks like a blatant cash grab to latch on to the popularity of a certain blockbuster movie franchise. It’s too bad that the filmmakers of “Mortal” couldn’t come up with a more original story. The visual effects and cinematography in “Mortal” are fairly good, but because of the moronic way that this story is told, it doesn’t matter how good the movie’s visuals might look if the dialogue and basic storyline are of such low quality that it’s embarrassing. All the electrical storms and fires concocted for this movie still can’t ignite the film’s very dull and unimaginative plot.

Saban Films released “Mortal” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020. The movie’s Blu-ray and DVD release date is November 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Centigrade,’ starring Genesis Rodriguez and Vincent Piazza

August 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Genesis Rodriguez and Vincent Piazza in “Centigrade” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)


Directed by Brendan Walsh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway, the dramatic film “Centigrade” features a two-person cast (one Latina woman and one white man), portraying a middle-class, American married couple.

Culture Clash: The husband and the wife (who’s pregnant) are buried underneath snow in their SUV, which got trapped during a snowstorm, and they both disagree on how to get rescued.

Culture Audience: “Centigrade” will appeal mostly to people who have the patience to sit through a feature-length movie that’s not very well-written and drags out the story in some implausible ways.

Do you want to watch an 87-minute movie about two people trapped in their car during a snowstorm—and that’s all you see for almost the entire film? The answer to that question indicates how much you’re willing to tolerate watching “Centigrade,” a movie that is supposed to be a thriller but ends up being a disappointing snoozefest. The filmmakers of “Centigrade” have taken this “trapped in a car” concept, which should have been a short film, and stretched it out to a very boring slog where not a whole lot happens except some repetitive arguing between the couple who are trapped in the car.

Normally, a movie that’s entirely about people trapped in a small, enclosed space would be an ideal way to go deep into insightful character revelations or some fascinating dialogue. When people are trapped in a small space together, all they have are each other and their thoughts. A movie with these circumstances has to rely more heavily on character development than other movies that take place in various settings.

Unfortunately, director Brendan Walsh (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daley Nixon) makes this story so generic and dull, that it’s mind-boggling how anyone thought that this screenplay was good enough to be a feature-length film. At the end of “Centigrade” viewers will learn almost nothing insightful about the American married couple at the center of the story.

What is shown at the beginning of the movie (which takes place in 2002, before smartphones existed) is that the wife is named Naomi (played by Genesis Rodriguez), her husband is named Matt (played by Vincent Piazza), and she’s pregnant and in her pregnancy’s last trimester. They are the only characters who speak on camera for the entire movie. Despite Naomi being so close to giving birth, she and Matt foolishly decided to drive their SUV in a snowstorm in Norway, on the way to their hotel. Naomi and Matt are in Norway because she’s an author who is scheduled to do publicity appearances for her new novel.

Seriously, what woman who’s seven to nine months pregnant would willingly put herself in the potentially dangerous situation of traveling on a road for several miles during a big snowstorm? Naomi does. And her husband Matt (who’s the driver) is just as reckless to be part of this decision too.

The beginning of their car trip is not shown in the movie, but apparently, the snow got bad enough that Matt decided to pull over to the side of the deserted road. They’ve parked about 50 miles east of the hotel where they are supposed to be staying. It’s not shown in the movie how bad the snowstorm got for Matt to stop driving.

But at some point, he decided to pull over to the side of the road so he and Naomi could get some rest and wait for visibility on the road to get better. There are no flashbacks in this story, but viewers find out that this was the chain of events, because Matt and Naomi argue later about his decision that they should sleep on the side of a deserted road during a snowstorm.

The movie begins with Naomi and Matt waking up in the car and finding out that the car is completed buried in the snow, and they can’t get out. And for a long time, they can’t open the windows either, because all the windows are frozen shut. It must have been a very long nap for all that snow to accumulate so heavily that their SUV to be completely hidden under a mound of snow. Keep in mind, they weren’t in an avalanche.

And wouldn’t you know, of course they can’t get reception on their phones, except for a brief moment when something happens that doesn’t improve their chances of being rescued anyway. And, of course, being trapped for what turns out to be several days means that their phone batteries will eventually die. That’s not implausible.

What really makes this movie hard to take is that Matt insists on waiting in the car until help arrives, even though it’s obvious that the car is buried underneath so much snow that they’re trapped. Therefore, it’s very likely that their car won’t be able to be seen at all underneath the snow. And exterior shots in the movie show that’s exactly the case.

Naomi wants to break a window and try to escape, but Matt (in a very condescending way) tells her to calm down because someone will eventually pass on the road and rescue them. They argue about it, and this disagreement about how to solve their problem takes up a good deal of the first third of the movie. When Naomi asks why Matt doesn’t want to break a window and try to dig their way out of the snow, his reply is: “Because we don’t know what’s out there. At least we can stay warm in the car.”

Although some viewers might be infuriated that Naomi eventually goes along with Matt’s choice, there is somewhat of a plausible explanation for it: She’s pregnant and probably doesn’t want to do anything that could physically harm the baby. Had she not been pregnant, who knows if she would’ve disregarded what Matt wanted and tried to break a window and crawl out herself?

At any rate, Matt and Naomi decide to stay in the car, where they only have two bottles of water to drink. Naomi estimates that the food they have in the car can last maybe 12 days. Matt and Naomi also happen to have a candle and match in the car, so they light the candle to keep themselves warm. Naomi’s pregnancy isn’t mentioned very often in the movie, except during certain key moments when the pregnancy is used as a reason for a plot development. And there’s very little plot development overall in this sluggishly paced film.

As anyone with basic survival skills knows, water is much more important than food, so Matt is way too calm about their dire situation to make this a credible story. They might have enough food for 12 days, but not enough water. And since Matt doesn’t want to break any of the car windows, they can’t get to the snow as a source of water. “Once it’s broken, it’s broken!,” Matt lectures Naomi when she keeps going back to the idea of breaking a window to escape.

At some point, the issue of bodily functions has to be addressed in this story, but even that is handled in an unrealistic way. Naomi is grossed-out by the idea of urinating in the one towel that’s in the car (it’s Matt’s suggestion), but the movie doesn’t even acknowledge that defecation has to happen too. And when viewers find out by the end of the movie how many days the people were trapped in the car, the movie takes on a whole new level of stupidity by ignoring that an accumulation of defecation (which would happen in real life) would be a very real and dangerous health hazard, especially for a pregnant woman. It’s unpleasant to mention, but necessary for this movie’s credibility.

Even just a few days into the ordeal, there’s no sign that this very real bodily function has taken place in the car. That doesn’t mean that the movie had to show all the details, but there isn’t even any dialogue about Matt and Naomi being nauseated by the smell of their own defecation. It’s one of the many plot inconsistences in “Centigrade,” which went out of its way to show Naomi’s disgust over urinating into a towel, and yet overlooked the far unhealthier situation of being trapped in a car that is also being used as a place to defecate, with no way to open the doors and windows.

Since the movie doesn’t want to realistically acknowledge that Matt and Naomi’s car has essentially become their unflushable toilet too, are there any realistic scenes where they try to prevent themselves from getting hypothermia? No. Not surprisingly, the car heater doesn’t seem to be working.

And what about that lit candle in that tightly enclosed space? The movie never acknowledges how that lit candle can negatively affect oxygen levels. There are so many things that “Centigrade” lacks in realism that viewers will be rolling their eyes while watching this film, if they haven’t fallen asleep before it ends.

So with a lack of medical and scientific realism in this “trapped in a car” movie, that just leaves the dialogue to possibly save this movie. But “Centigrade” falls very short in that area too. There’s a lot of unnecessary filler dialogue that goes nowhere in “Centigrade.”

During their ordeal, Naomi rambles on about some stories she’s thinking about writing. One of the story ideas is about an elderly woman in Paris who lives alone and gets stuck in her bathroom. She starts clanging on the bathroom door to get help. Her neighbors hear the noise and complain about it, but they don’t go over to where the woman lives to see what’s wrong. And so, the woman doesn’t get rescued until the landlord comes over to collect his rent.

What is the point of this story? Nothing, except it’s a lead-in to this insipid dialogue: Matt says, “Who gets stuck in a bathroom?” Naomi replies, “The same idiots who get stuck in a blizzard.”

Matt also gets upset when Naomi announces that she’s already planning for their bodies to be found: “I think we should write a letter for when we’re discovered.” “Centigrade” also has a few predictable “false hope” scenes, where it looks like Naomi and Matt could be rescued, but then they’re not.

As the only two actors in the movie who speak on camera, Rodriguez and Piazza don’t have much to do with their dull and dreary roles, because most of the hollow dialogue gives no real insight into their personalities. Naomi spends more time talking about what she wants to write instead of talking about what’s going to happen to her unborn child. The movie is so out of touch with reality that it doesn’t really show that the biggest worry for expectant parents in this situation would be the fate of their child.

Piazza does a little bit of a better job in his role than Rodriguez does in hers, because it seems like she’s just reading some of her lines instead of acting. Rodriguez also has some unrealistic mannerisms throughout the first two-thirds of the movie that will make people forget that she’s supposed to playing a pregnant woman.

There’s no context in the movie about how Matt and Naomi met, how long they’ve been married, and why they fell in love with each other. This type of context would go a long way in getting the audience to root for Matt and Naomi to get rescued. Matt reveals a secret during the ordeal, but it’s not a secret that will change his relationship with Naomi.

You wouldn’t know that these spouses and their unborn child are in a life-and-death situation by the way that Matt and Naomi just slump in the car and listlessly talk about what they’re thinking, in between their unproductive arguments. There’s no real heart-pounding urgency to this story, no escalating tension over what their escape plan should be if no one comes to rescue them, no growing panic over whether or not their baby will survive. This badly written and tediously paced film not only has the characters buried in snow, but the movie also buries itself in substandard nonsense.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Centigrade” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Out Stealing Horses,’ starring Stellan Skarsgård, Bjørn Floberg, Jon Ranes, Tobias Santelmann and Danica Curcic

August 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jon Ranes and Tobias Santelmann in “Out Stealing Horses” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Out Stealing Horses”

Directed by Hans Petter Moland

Norwegian and Swedish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and Sweden in three specific years (1948, 1956 and 1999), the dramatic film “Out Stealing Horses” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A reclusive 66-year-old man remembers a pivotal summer when he was 15 years old and when his family and a neighbor’s family experienced some turmoil that changed their lives forever.

Culture Audience: “Out Stealing Horses” will appeal primarily to fans of star Stellan Skarsgård and to people who like European arthouse films.

Stellan Skarsgård and Bjørn Floberg in “Out Stealing Horses” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

How does a person’s childhood define who that person is an adult? That question is posed in the dramatic film “Out Stealing Horses,” an often-morose character study that is partly a “coming of age” story and partly a “coming to terms” story, as one very reclusive man looks back on a turning point in his life.

Hans Petter Moland wrote and directed “Out Stealing Horses,” which is based on the Per Petterson novel of the same name. The beginning of the movie takes place in rural Norway in November 1999, when 66-year-old widowed retiree Trond Sander (played by Stellan Skarsgård) is settling in his isolated house during a snowy night. Trond says in a voiceover: “All my life I’ve dreamed of being in a place like this.”

Trond also says that he won’t be part of the village’s New Year’s Eve celebrations to usher in the new millennium, and that he’s looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve alone and drunk. Why is Trond so reclusive and seemingly depressed? Part of the reason is because his wife died three years earlier in a car accident in which Trond was driving the car and she was a passenger.

But there are other reasons why Trond doesn’t really like to be around other people. And those reasons are made clearer when Trond’s memories of a life-changing summer are triggered after he encounters a 61-year-old man named Lars Haug (played by Bjørn Floberg), who happens to be outside Trond’s home on that snowy November night.

Lars and Trond see each other because Lars has been out looking for his Border Collie dog Poker and calling the dog’s name. The dog eventually comes back to Lars, who introduces himself to Trond as one of the neighbors. There’s something a little mentally “off” about Lars, because while he was looking for his dog, he tells Trond an odd, random story about how when he was 19, he was forced to shoot a German Shepherd out of self-defense.

During the course of their conversation, Trond realizes that he knows Lars from when they were children, but they haven’t seen each other in decades. The movie then flashes back to the summer of 1948, when Trond was 15 years old and living as an only child with his parents in rural Norway. The parents in this story don’t have names, which is a symbolic
and psychological indication that Trond wants to block out some bad memories.

What happens in that flashback won’t be revealed here, but it’s enough to say that young Trond (played by Jon Ranes, in his film debut) and his stern, domineering father (played by Tobias Santelmann) have a tension-filled relationship. Trond’s mother (played by Beate Mostraumin) is loving but fairly passive.

Trond’s family is friendly with a neighbor family that includes a husband and wife (played by Pål Sverre Hagen and Danica Curcic); their 17-year-old son Jon (played by Sjur Vatne Brean); and their 10-year-old fraternal twin sons Lars (played by Torjus Hopland Vollan) and Odd. One day during that summer, when Jon and Trond go outside to steal some horses as a prank, Trond notices that Jon is acting very strangely. The lives of both families then become intertwined through a series of circumstances and choices.

Because the majority of the movie consists of the flashback scenes, Skarsgård isn’t in the movie has much as people might think he is. The heart of the movie really lies with young Trond, who has to grow up very quickly that summer, as he learns some harsh life lessons.

Ranes makes an impressive film debut in this role, since his character goes through the biggest transformation during his adolescence in the story. He perfectly captures the angst, vulnerability and bravado of a teenager going through some experiences that will impact him for the rest of his life.

As the older Trond looking back on his younger years, Skarsgård does a fine job as someone coming to terms with his past. By the end of the movie, it’s very clear why Trond has spent most of his life suppressing his emotions and why he has reached a point where he wants to become a recluse.

The movie’s direction, cinematography (by Rasmus Videbæk) and production design (by Jørgen Stangebye Larsen) expertly craft the emotional and physical contrasts of the worlds inhabited by young Trond and older Trond. The world of young Trond is brighter, bigger and filled with more hope and possibilities. The world of older Trond is cold, dark and lonely.

“Out Stealing Horses” is a solid movie that does a very good visual interpretation of the novel. Although the character of Trond is a specific person, the movie’s themes about family dynamics and childhood memories can resonate with many people.

Magnolia Pictures released “Out Stealing Horses” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020. The movie was released in Europe in 2019.

Review: ‘The Painter and the Thief,’ starring Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland

May 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Karl-Bertil Nordland and Barbora Kysilkova in “The Painter and the Thief” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Painter and the Thief”

Directed by Benjamin Ree

English and Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway, the documentary “The Painter and the Thief” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A talented painter befriends a drug-addicted criminal after he stole two of her paintings, and their complicated relationship often causes friction in their lives.

Culture Audience: “The Painter and the Thief” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in unique, well-made documentaries about emotionally damaged adults.

Karl-Bertil Nordland in “The Painter and the Thief” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

By far one of the best documentaries of the year, “The Painter and the Thief” is not a celebrity profile, does not push a political agenda, and will not uncover scandalous information that’s meant to shock people. Instead, the documentary beautifully tells a story of two people who have formed an unexpectedly intense friendship because of an unlikely connection. The two people at the heart of the story—Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland—became close friends after he was arrested in 2015 for breaking into the Gallery Nobel in Oslo and stealing two valuable paintings that she made.

Kysilkova and Nordland, who were both in their 30s when this film was made, did not know each other prior to the crime. The break-in and theft were caught on surveillance video, which is why Nordland and his accomplice were quickly arrested. Nordland said in his court testimony and he told many other people (including Barbara) that he and the accomplice did not intend to steal any particular paintings. They just happened to like what they saw in Kysilkova’s paintings and they randomly stole them. The paintings were worth almost €20,000, according to a TV news report shown in the documentary.

Kysilkova felt compelled to strike up a conversation with Nordland while he was sitting alone during a waiting period in the courtroom proceedings. This brief encounter is presented in audio only and augmented by courtroom illustrations, since video cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom. And that’s how their friendship began, but then she did something unexpected: She asked Nordland if she could paint a portrait of him. And he agreed.

Kysilkova originally intended to talk to Nordland to find out what happened to her paintings, which had not been recovered by investigators. The documentary shows conversations that Kysilkova and Nordland had before and after he and his accomplice were each sentenced to 75 days in prison. It’s not the first time that Nordland went to prison and it wasn’t the last time either.

But the documentary shows that there’s more to this story than a compassionate woman who forgave someone who committed a crime against her. What started out as a conversation in a courtroom developed into a deep and complicated friendship that sometimes caused tension in Kysilkova’s relationship with her boyfriend Øystein Stene. Kysilkova and Nordland open up to each other about their past and present lives, which are also revealed in the documentary.

“The Painter and the Thief” does not have interviews with talking heads, animation or re-created scenes with actors. Instead, director Benjamin Ree skillfully lets the story unfold by just showing what happens. He and the other filmmakers got involved in the story when Ree heard that Kysilkova asked Nordland if she could paint his portrait. The early footage of the painter and the thief getting to know each other was actually filmed by a friend of Kysilkova’s who had been documenting her life as an artist.

Even though this documentary’s filmmakers were not there from the beginning of the story, it’s obvious that they did not know how the movie was going to end—and documentaries made without a pre-determined outcome are usually the best type of nonfiction. The film lets viewers go on the journey with the filmmakers to see what happens in this fascinating story.

It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Kysilkova, whose specialty is human portraits, is a very talented painter and a true artist. She’s the type of artist who needs to create every day and will shut herself off from the outside world if necessary when she’s in the midst of creating her art. She has a calm, usually optimistic demeanor, but the movie slowly unravels layers of her personality to show that she’s also attracted to dark subjects (she has a fascination with tragic deaths) and damaged individuals.

Kysilkova is a Czech Repubic native, who previously lived in Berlin before moving to Oslo. Viewers find out during the movie that she relocated to Oslo with her boyfriend Stene (who is several years older than Kysilkova) to escape from a previous relationship with an ex-boyfriend who allegedly physically and emotionally abused her. Stene also mentions that the ex-boyfriend stalked, threatened and harassed them, which is the main reason why they moved to another country. (In the documentary, Kysilkova sometimes refers to Stene as her “husband,” but it’s made clear in the film that they are not married.)

As a child, Kysilkova was a sensitive soul with a capacity for kindness and compassion that go beyond what an average person has. For example, when she was a child who visited the grave of a dead relative, she noticed that there was a grave of an unnamed Jewish girl that would never have any visitors, so Kysilkova would leave flowers on the grave too.

And throughout the film, Kysilkova is described as someone who doesn’t hesitate to help friends and other people who are down on their luck. She’s the type of person who, even if she’s struggling to pay for food for herself, won’t hesitate to buy a meal for someone who needs it. Kysilkova’s parents are not seen or mentioned in the film, so that part of her background remains a mystery in the documentary.

And how did Nordland become a drug addict and criminal? His troubled background gives some insight. He had a happy childhood living on a farm with his parents and his younger brother and sister. But when his parents divorced when he was 8, his life was thrown into chaos. His mother left with his two younger siblings, and he never had contact with any of them again.

His father raised him, but was frequently away because he worked a lot. (Nordland’s father is still in his son’s life, as shown by a few scenes in the documentary.) After high school, Nordland worked with special-needs kids and seemed to be on track to leading a productive life.

But somewhere along the way, he fell in with the wrong crowd, and he became a criminal and a drug addict. It’s apparent that the trauma of his childhood has led to his lifelong feelings of abandonment, loneliness and feeling inferior to other people. Nordland isn’t self-pitying, but it’s clear from the movie that he has a lot of inner turmoil.

“The Painter and the Thief” uses an unconventional tactic by not having all of this biographical information revealed from first-person interviews, but by having Kysilkova and Nordland reveal some of this information about each other’s lives in voiceover narration. It’s a way for viewers to discover what each person in the friendship confided to each other.

Nordland says in the movie that while it seemed like Kysilkova was the one studying him for their portrait sessions, he was also studying her. And the film sometimes switches back and forth from being told from Kysilkova’s perspective and Nordland’s perspective. Because of the documentary’s outstanding editing from Robert Stengеrd, these double perspectives work very well in the film.

At one point in the film, Kysilkova marvels in a voiceover narration about Norland being a fascinating dichotomy. She says that under different circumstances, he could have ended up as a terrorist or the prime minister of Norway. Norland also says in a separate voiceover that he’s also noticed two sides of Kysilkova, because although she has a sweet and kind nature, her fascination with death and dark subjects is reflected in some of art and her life choices.

From the beginning of his friendship with Kysilkova, Nordland admits that he’s a hardcore drug addict. He tells her that his drug addiction is why he doesn’t remember what happened to the stolen paintings, because he was strung out on meth and other drugs when he committed the crime. He says that the entire month of the theft was “a blur” to him. He tells her, “How can you understand that’s been awake for four days and using 20 grams of amphetamine and eating 100 pills?”

Nordland is also candid with Kysilkova about his criminal record. And during a portrait session, he opens up to her how most of the friends he knew when he was a rebellious teenager are now dead or in prison. Instead of being weekend partiers, “We liked to party from Wednesday to Wednesday,” he tells Kysilkova. Her response? “I like your sense of humor.”

Kysilkova’s non-judgmental approach to Nordland is one of the main reasons why their friendship was able to evolve into a deep and trusting bond. When she shows him the finished portrait, he bursts into tears in a way that someone cries when they have a lifetime of emotional pain to let out. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film. And it’s also a turning point in Norland and Kysilkova’s relationship, because it’s clear that Norland hasn’t been that open with someone in a very long time.

Soon after this emotional breakthrough, Kysilkova visits Nordland in his apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Samara, also known as Sammy, who isn’t there when Kysilkova comes to visit. Kysilkova compliments Nordland on how his apartment has many pictures on the wall, because she says she doesn’t really like minimalist interior design. It’s during this visit that Nordland presents her with an emotionally moving letter.

In yet another example of one friend saying what the other is feeling, he asks her to read the letter aloud. In the letter, he tells her: “You inspire and teach me so much in my sometime emotional life … Art isn’t just a painting, but so much more—all the feelings, tears. Nobody has ever seen me vulnerable like you [have]. True, pure friendship.”

Nordland says later in the film, “Because of my background, I’ve always been skeptical of strangers.” When he first met Kysilkova, he thought that she was trying to trick him or expose him. But when she showed that she genuinely wanted to be his friend, that’s when he decided to trust her.

But are they really just platonic friends? Throughout the film, there are signs that Norland and Kysilkova are also sexually attracted to each other and falling in love, by the way they look at each and make flirtatious remarks. She sometimes blushes and gets giggly in his presence. And he writes letters to her that sound a lot like love notes.

Do they act on this attraction? The documentary provides more insight, but Norland and Kysilkova’s deep bond doesn’t go unnoticed by Kysilkova’s boyfriend, who’s visibly uncomfortable with these two getting closer to each other. Kysilkova and Stene are in couples therapy, and the documentary includes footage from a therapy session. Kysilkova and Nordland are so close that she even confides to him that she doesn’t really like being in couples therapy.

The film also shows Stene and Kysilkova arguing about the ethics of her doing a close-up portrait of a wound that Norland has in the middle of his hand. It’s a puncture wound that people with religious knowledge might notice as being similar to a Christ-like stigmata wound, which might be one of the reasons why Kysilkova wants to do the portrait. Stene thinks it’s inappropriate for his girlfriend to do this portrait, while Kysilkova admits it might seem unethical, but it’s not unethical if the person who’s being painted doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s obvious from this argument that the real issue isn’t the portrait but the growing emotional intimacy between Kysilkova and Nordland.

As for Nordland’s girlfriend Sammy (an older lady whose tattooed personal style is reminiscent of a buzzcut Wendy O. Williams), she seems to be okay with the friendship between Kysilkova and Nordland. If Sammy had any jealousy issues, they’re not shown in the documentary. In fact, Kysilkova comes up with the idea to do an intimate portrait of Nordland and Sammy together, where they both are in a scantily clad, romantic embrace in a love seat. It’s a portrait idea that will have special significance at the end of the film.

Kysilkova and Nordland have a close friendship, but there are times when Kysilkova seems blissfully naïve or very much in denial about how Nordland’s drug addiction affects his behavior and their friendship. She can’t seem to understand why he disappears for long period of time. (There’s a scene of her leaving frustrated voice mail messages for him when he doesn’t call her back.)

And in another scene, a very unhealthy-looking and obviously strung-out Nordland (whose sunken face is an obvious sign of meth addiction) comes over to her place and seems in a daze and emotionally distant. And she wonders aloud why he’s acting that way.

In another scene, Nordland calls her while he’s clearly high on some illegal substance and starts rambling to her in an agitated state about how he’s going leave Oslo and to move to the country. Instead of being alarmed, she cheerfully responds, “Okay, talk to you later.” You don’t have to be a therapist to see these are classic signs of a co-dependent relationship. The question is if it’s destructive or healing.

Watching the film, viewers will also wonder who cares enough about Nordland to try to get him into rehab. That issue is addressed in the movie. And what happens after that also brings some twists and turns to the story that will take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, as someone in the film experiences a major transformation.

In a world that’s often focused on how governments and societies affect people’s lives, “The Painter and the Thief” is a superb testimonial about how a relationship between two people can have an equally important impact on someone’s life. It’s also an example of how true friendship can come from unexpected places if someone is open to it. The very last image in the movie leaves no doubt about that.

Neon released “The Painter and the Thief” on Hulu, digital, VOD and in select U.S. virtual cinemas and drive-in theaters on May 22, 2020.