Director: Jeremy Sims
Writers: Jules Duncan
Stars: Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Asher Keddie
Synopsis: Two estranged brothers must set aside their differences when a rare and lethal illness threatens their respective flocks of sheep in Western Australia.
In 2015, Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson struck a chord with his bleak comedy-drama Rams. A festival hit, this icy film about two estranged brothers and their flock of endangered sheep enraptured hearts with its delicate touch of tragedy and glimmer of comedy. Forward fast to the present and Australian director Jeremy Sins has more or less reimagined the film with everything in tack, swapping the chilly Icelandic landscape for the beautiful, blazing scenery of Mount Barker, Western Australia. As such, it makes for a much warmer film, both in its cinematography and central performances from Aussie treasures Sam Neill and Michael Caton as the two feuding sheep farmers. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to see any of the promotional material for the film, its bland profile shots would have painted a knock-off, slapstick comedy in your mind, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a lot to like here and it’s far more interesting you’d think. Sins’ balance of humour and drama make for a pleasant, surprisingly tender film about community, masculinity, and the brutal reality of life alongside bushland prone to catching fire. Releasing it now, in the wake of Australia’s ongoing bushfire crisis, will no doubt strike a similar emotional chord with viewers that Hákonarson achieved with his stark original.
Colin (Neil) and Les (Caton) begin the film competing in a prized annual competition for best ram, their relationship quickly established through seething scowls and written notes passed between the two with a little help from an adorable, precious Border Collie – when the centrepiece bushfire comes, dog lovers will be the first to sweat. There’s a subtle moment early on that sees Colin pause at his brother’s door, concealed in shadow, too reluctant to cross the threshold and make contact with his older brother, who also bears an explosive grudge and succumbs to alcoholism. Neill is right at home as the softer of the two brothers, his trademark short, snappy grunts and easy shoulders make for a very likeable lead and constant warm presence. The veteran actor also finds room to explore a surprising amount of buried grief and vulnerability in what is otherwise a run-of-the-mill gruff loner, good guy role. Meanwhile, Caton plays an isolated Les to the point of engulfing resentment, trapped in a cycle of self-destruction, only able to engage with his brother through angry rants, or a shotgun blast through the window. He’s often comatose in the scorching heat, burned dangerously to a crisp, but Caton’s helpless stumble and weary eyes draw you in, regardless of Les’ shrapnel temperament.
While it’s billed as a comedy, it doesn’t really feel like one. For one thing, it’s quite a long film, clocking in at two hours, and it has the sleepy pace to match it too. Don’t’ confuse this with slow or boring, as Rams is neither, but it does have its own quirky rhythm that takes adjusting to. A lot of the humour is baked into the background, mostly found in the way Jules Duncan’s script handles everyday encounters. Everybody in this film, at some point, ends up dropping their lines and thoughts mid-sentence, which makes the initial tone of Rams a little awkward. Fortunately, you do settle in, and those scattershot interactions become more natural and charming. It brings this small rural community to life. It’s aided by Sins’ attention to rustic farming details, a host of colourful supporting characters (a half-baked love interest (Miranda Richardson) and slithery health department official (Leon Ford) to highlight two) and Steve Arnold’s picturesque cinematography of remote Western Australia, both in its natural tranquil beauty and the eventual depiction of hellish fires sweeping across the horizon, staining the sky red. The time spent with Rams is always visually and emotionally engaging, even when the plot dips into Sunday afternoon melodrama.
The big plot drive in Rams, which remains the same as the Icelandic original, is an outbreak of Ovine Johne’s Disease (OJD) a highly infectious and deadly disease to sheep, which health authorities declare an emergency, enforcing every sheep in the valley be destroyed. It’s a crushing blow to the community, especially the two brothers who have inherited their family farm and history – for Colin and Les, there is no life beyond their livestock. This lifestyle, and an entire industry, is also embedded into the conflict that has split the brothers apart for 40 years. It’s rammed home further every time Colin charmingly talks to his sheep, “You’re beautiful, and you’re beautiful, and you’re beautiful.” If you’ve seen and liked any of Sam Neill’s daily Instagram videos, you’ll find much to enjoy here. The sheep are as much a pet as the Border Collie trained to herd them. Crucially, they have a lot of character in the film, and many of the laughs come from watching Colin navigate them through his house, which he transforms into a makeshift secret barn to hide them away from authorities.
The catastrophic bushfire that careens the film into a different, altogether more threatening direction, while emphatically filmed, also doubles as an insight into what Australians deal with amidst the very real and present danger of climate change. Since Rams is generally a light affair, the lingering shot of a scorched Kangaroo completely darkens the tone and grounds it in an unshakable reality.
At two hours, Rams threatens to overstay its welcome and not all of its expected plot points come off. The attempted love interest from the on-scene vet, Kat (Richardson), half works in that Richardson and Neill have good chemistry, although Colin and Kat’s attraction is never really pushed and feels ultimately pointless and forgettable. Colin is too much of a recluse to allow anybody close, even if he wants to – the script makes a limp attempt to tackle this in a brief moment of emotional breakdown from Colin, but any impact this has is simply abandoned in the next scene. It’s not a deal-breaker, the only connection that matters is Colin and Les as the down-beaten brothers attempting to repair their livelihood and fractured relationship. Neill and Caton complement each other terrifically, their fiery partnership sells the entire film.