American cinema seems to have an allergy toward inactivity. The bulk of our films, even among the independent industry, are primarily concerned with an action-oriented plot, while depth of character is typically inversely related to the amount of gunplay or comedic tomfoolery on-screen. Conversely, European cinema--at least that which receives international release--frequently prizes personal motivations as the trigger-point to the story. Frequently, foreign screenplays merely observe daily actions and progress the story in an organic, natural manner. Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer takes this to extremes, his '03 film Kitchen Stories is actually the tale of a researcher sitting and watching a bachelor at home. Hamer's latest, O'Horten, is similar, as the story of a man who has been a passenger on his own life's journey.
After nearly 40 years of service, locomotive engineer Odd Horten (Baard Owe) is about to retire. The evening before his final railroad passage back to Oslo, he is feted by his co-workers and reluctantly agrees to join an after-hours party, from which he is promptly locked out. Horten spends the night in a neighboring apartment and misses his train the next morning. Now officially discharged from the working world and lacking hobbies or recreational interests, he meanders through Oslo observing the strange activities of others and searching for something to combat the loneliness of retirement ahead. Along the way, he visits his senile mother Vera (Kari Loland), who is a former ski-jumper, and takes up with an elderly diplomat (Espen Skjonberg) who inspires him to attempt the unexpected.
O'Horten is a surprisingly delightful film. A story of lonely, passive people struggling with age, infirmity and boredom might sound like a subtitled snooze-fest, but director Hamer deftly infuses this work with wry humor and a subtle surrealism that arrests the audience's attention. Horten himself is an enigma, a poker-faced septuagenarian whose meticulous habits give his life order but not purpose. An established onlooker, he silently observes accidents, arrests and exhibitionist ardor with a passivity that masks his own timidity and cowardice. Horten is a reluctant protagonist, witnessing rather than initiating the film's activity, and yet he's outright fascinating. In his first leading role after working in the European film industry for nearly 40 years, Owe is magnificent, betraying Horten's emotions in small gestures and sly smiles. The rest of the cast is something of a who's who of Scandinavian theater--their appearances small but memorable, while ski-jumping superstar Anette Sagen cameos as Vera's younger self.
Hamer, who also provided the film's screenplay, and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund create a spare and clean look for O'Horten, utilizing long tracking shots of snowbound railways, unpopulated curbsides and cafes that enhance the emptiness of Horten's activities. An austere but never overbearing score by John Erik Kaada is used interjectorily, but only accentuates the silence of most scenes. It's an uncluttered film, each element seemingly placed with the same focused meticulousness as Horten's daily routines. Although filmmaking is frequently called a craft, most directors rarely exhibit Hamer's level of care and attention, and the precision of his work is a pleasure in itself. While O'Horten may not be a good choice for those with short attention spans, its observational emphasis and peerless artistry warrant a cease-fire of spurious activity.