An ornery railroad worker rediscovers life after retirement
“Today is a beautiful day for driving blind,” an old man says in the newly arrived Norwegian movie O’Horten. Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), a waddling gnome of a man, says this not as a fanciful metaphor or whimsical joke, as he might in a Hollywood movie, but as a matter-of-fact observation. Before long, he pulls a dark blue stocking cap over his face and guides his car through downtown Oslo.
His passenger is Odd Horten (Baard Owe), a recently retired railroad engineer, who has spent his life following train tracks, sticking to schedules, and avoiding this kind of risk. He gives a grimace of apprehension, but buckles his seat belt and says not a word as Trygve heads out into traffic. He is right to feel apprehensive, though not for the reasons we expect, and a little later he steps away from the car eager for further gambles.
Odd is not a talkative man, and little is said in this slow but gratifying picture. In lieu of dialogue, writer/director Bent Hamer often mounts the camera on the nose of a bullet train as it barrels through a dark, narrow tunnel before bursting into the blinding white of snow-blanketed rural Norway. Or he points the camera at Odd’s face, deeply creased with a gray mustache and gaunt cheekbones, and allows each twitch in the stoic mask to hint at the emotions stirring below.
This is familiar territory for Hamer, who made 2003’s art-house hit Kitchen Stories, about a sociological study of Sweden’s bachelor farmers. O’Horten isn’t as witty or charming as its predecessor, but it displays a similar sympathy and insight into the lives of older men. This time, though, when the men find their solitary routines threatened by unexpected encounters, Hamer is less likely to play the juxtaposition for chuckles and more likely to let the strangeness resonate.
When Odd finds himself trapped in a strange apartment, for example, instead of the expected confrontation with the owners, there’s a disorienting shot of an old man in a black-leather railroad uniform lurking beneath a child’s bunk bed. When Odd finds himself at a hillside bus stop on an icy night and a businessman goes sliding by on his bottom, there is no explanation—just an acceptance that more things are possible in this world than he thought.
The movie is built on small, jarring moments such as these, because it offers precious little in the way of major plot points. The 67-year-old Odd attends his retirement dinner, but then gets lost on the way to the after-dinner party. He decides to sell his boat to an airport employee, but finds himself lost and abandoned on a runway tarmac. Odd goes to visit his mother—a passionate ski jumper like Hamer’s mother—but she says not a word. Moviegoers will find their patience tested.
And rewarded as well. As Odd, Owe, who had a major role in Carl Dreyer’s final movie Gertrud, knows how to make this minimalism work. Tall and trim even at 70—as he was when the movie was shot—Owe never loses his ramrod, laconic dignity, no matter how bizarrely circumstances conspire against him. He does allow his fiercely contained privacy to fray around the edges, however, and finds he enjoys it when a tobacconist or a schizophrenic impulsively blurts out secrets to him.
Hamer strikes a similar balance between dignity and risk in his filmmaking. The director resists the temptation to win sympathy for his old people by making them childlike. His characters carry their years with them at all times and are even more crotchety and resistant to change than the Ed Asner character in Up. So when the change does occur—when Trygve pulls down his stocking cap, Odd swallows his objections and the car approaches a red light—it really means something. Even after the damage is assessed, Odd concludes that it really is a beautiful day for driving blind.