Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men is the rare honest film about horses, one as frank about their tubelike erections as it is caught up in the beauty of gaits and forelocks and that profusion of lashes over those moistly delicate eyes. That means you might not want to bring the kids. Part pitiless comic anthology film, part harrowing hard-land survival story, and often featuring soul-stirring canters along Icelandic vistas, the film exemplifies the worn-down saying that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man — but then, toward the end, a man facing a night in a freezing wasteland has to carve his way inside a horse, a feat here captured at a level of procedural detail that would make The Empire Strikes Back burst into tears.
The idea, of course, is that animal and man aren’t so different from each other, a point made more amusingly, here, in bookending scenes of outdoor rutting. The first is equine, and it’s a better shock-laugh than any Hollywood comedy’s come up with in years. The end titles promise that no horses were harmed during the production, but say nothing about whether any were pleasured — if the stallion onscreen here is faking his nickering O-face, a Best Actor nomination should be a lock.
The film’s cruel, on occasion, but mostly to the humans it depicts as clownish or monstrous, such as a fancy-pants who executes his prize mare after she’s been mounted by that lesser stallion. (The man shoots her, but the filmmakers keep her out of the shot.) The taking-shelter-in-the-corpse sequence, too, is about the man’s need more than the horse’s suffering, but here he isn’t necessarily a villain, and it leaves you to wonder at how our compassion can be at odds with our very survival: Neither horse nor man would make it through the night anyway, so why, as we watch, do we detest him? Some credit must go to the close-ups of horse-eyes that kick off most of the (slightly) related tales. Reflected in each brown and mysterious orb is some key element of the story to come — a man in a riding cap, a snatch of barbed wire, always something disruptive to the noble work of standing around and chowing on grass.
Fortunately, Of Horses and Men is often sprightly, and almost every shot is an eyeful: Horses and riders, layers of cliffs and grasslands, a sea of icy blue that one horse, spurred along by a mad drunk, finds itself swimming across. Just what the man’s up to I’ll not spill, except to say that this misadventure, like all in Erlingsson’s film, reminds us that just because we’ve mastered an animal doesn’t mean we think more than it.