With only a couple of films, Bent Hamer has become a "must see" director for me. The Norwegian filmmaker first charmed me with the delightfully oddball Kitchen Stories, then he made me believe that Matt Dillon was Charles Bukowski in Factotum, and now he returns to more quirk-laden emotional landscapes for his latest, O' Horten.
The big O of the title is Odd Horten (Bard Owe), a 67-year-old train engineer who is about to drive his last route before retirement. A stoic, taciturn mama's boy, Odd has come to the realization that, like his train, he has stuck to familiar paths in his existence, regularly going back and forth but never quite being a part of the life he's been passing through. On the night before his final day as a working man, he sleepwalks his way through the retirement party, smoking his pipe and watching as the other engineers play a game of train trivia. While sneaking through a stranger's apartment after, Odd is stopped by a curious child (Peder Anders Lohne Hamer), the first of many happenstance encounters that will alter Odd's course throughout the movie. In this case, the boy's insistence that Odd stay with him leads to the man oversleeping and missing his own train. Even sooner than he had expected, things have moved on without him.
The rest of O' Horten follows Odd as he tries to figure out what to do with himself now that he has time on his hands. This involves his wandering to familiar places to see familiar faces, contemplating whether to discard the trappings of his lost youth, and pondering over chances missed. Given Odd's reluctance to explain himself, Hamer leaves us to infer what the man is going through. Bard Owe is perfect casting for such a meditative role. A veteran actor whose career has spanned Dreyer's Gertrude to Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom television series, he brings the full breadth of his life experience to O' Horten. His face, with its wrinkles and dark eyes, is full of character, and the actor need not speak in order to appear interesting. He propels a scene on just the slightest changes of expression, his bewilderment at a world he doesn't understand or even belong in serving to alter and comment on the space in which he finds himself. Hamer often lingers on the actor, mixing up the intimate close-ups with long shots from the middle distance, the observational eye alternating between intimacy and desolation in its examination of loneliness.
We follow Odd as he visits his invalid mother (Kari Lolland), as well as his obnoxious friend Flo (Bjørn Floberg), an airport worker who wants to buy Odd's boat. When Odd goes to meet him at his job, it's one of a series of misadventures, with our hero being sent every which way to get what he is after, a slight foreshadowing of his realizing he doesn't know what he wants and of the other misadventures to come. More important than the friends he reconnects with are the strangers who begin to show him that change is not so frightening, possibly even something to be embraced. The wife (Ghita Nørby) of the now-deceased tobacconist and the gregarious diplomat with a secret (Espen Skjønberg) are both put in his way to teach him something, the markers on an often dreamlike journey to new understanding. Given that this is a rumination on old age, that means death is a regular topic, sometimes overtly, sometimes as more covert symbols. Odd's favorite bar, for instance, is the Valkyrijen, ironically named as it is less a Valhalla for noble warriors and more a purgatory for the terminally dispossessed. The waiter in the place (Bjørn Jenseng) looks like the guy the grim reaper forgot to pick up.
All of this may sound like the sort of textbook "quirky" that makes many indie and foreign films so trying, but Hamer makes it all appear natural, giving each weirdo a lovingly realized base on which to stand. O' Horten is definitely not a movie for everyone. It requires patience of the viewer, and is thus likely one to be hotly debated between those who "get it" and those don't. It's easy to look at a movie like this and declare that nothing happened, but that requires a belief that the only something that's important is a big something--a punch in the jaw, an explosion, a tearful confession, etc. To judge the movie in such terms would be a mistake, however, and would be to misjudge life itself. I've never seen an explosion, I haven't been punched in the jaw nearly as often as I've probably deserved, and I haven't made tearful confessions every time it would have counted for something.
I have, however, felt like Odd Horten, cast suddenly adrift and seemingly alone. I suspect most people have. Thus, watching him as he seeks a new place in life, casting about for the right decisions to make a positive change, is a cathartic, immersive experience. The movie felt as if it were embracing me, inviting me to find my own answers in my encounter with Odd as he found in his encounters with others. One need only to return O' Horten's embrace to get as much out of it as Bent Hamer wants to give.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.