by Joshua Sparks
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Odd Horten, a retiring train engineer, is old and still, quietly sitting in a corner during a night out with fellow engineers, observing without requiring much. When we first see Odd in this Norwegian film from Bent Hamer, he’s not making small talk well with a colleague, as cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund takes us through colorful routes of train tracks. Later we see that Odd knows how many tunnels are between two cities on a particular train line, but practically all the mostly younger conductors do as they quiz each other in a sort of lonely sounding sport. A sport they seem to relish.
Odd is talked into going to a party that’s occurring after his colleagues play this game and generally cavort amongst themselves after work. Odd eventually agrees to go along, even if socializing, or talking at all, interrupts his life of routine. This invitation commences a story as pleasant and still as its main character.
One image that will make Hamer’s film memorable is Odd, having been locked out of the building where the party is being held, climbing a scaffolding. Two trees frame the building, and his silhouette, behind the scaffolding’s plastic, climbs the façade of the structure in the late night and silent dark. He climbs into an open window the floor below his colleague’s apartment, hearing the party through the ceiling as he enters what turns out to be the room of a small boy.
Odd explains his situation to the boy he awakens, but the boy wants Odd to sit in his room until he falls asleep, lest he wake his parents with his drum set and expose the stranger that is Odd in their midst. Odd falls asleep, leading him to miss the last drive of his life the next morning. He’s missed his dependable train, and now he’s retired. Now what?
Trying to sell a boat or losing his shoes at a public pool, Odd’s ensuing retired life could be viewed as uneventful, and the average movie-goer may think the same thing. But his acts take on a growing desperation, as much as Odd can display this trait, and even selling a boat becomes a hardship. While Odd’s misadventures may not be thrilling, his strolling into an unknown jutting up against the meek mountain he’s made of his life is curiously appealing, and the visual design of the film puts the character in his own universe without really leaving one to say exactly in which way. Sure, the photography and set design is bright, but it’s not garish, and it’s bland but not dull. Lonely, yet kind of upbeat. Always a little spare and blocky without driving in this style.
The story of Odd is relatively not odd as we observe his mundaneness. As his story unfolds and becomes somewhat slow, Odd finally faces his oddest adventure after agreeing to drive a happily inebriated old man, who he finds lying in the street, back to his fancy digs. The man states that he’s an ambassador with a schizophrenic brother, and shows Odd a meteorite from space that he keeps in his drinking room. Is the old man crazy? He’s certainly wealthy. But can he drive blindfolded—as he claims he can, and invites Odd to watch him prove?
Of course, Odd and the old drunk, who may or may not share with Odd the ability to drive between two points without looking, may be on routine journeys compared to the celestial rock that the old drunk cherishes. But that rock’s journey, as the old drunk promises, will not end in his house.
The question lingering as the movie passes is whether the lonely, little man prototype is ever given anything concretely interesting enough to render his story all that effective. Did the film make me care if Odd ever found his spark—that his mother, whom he visits in her nearly catatonic state, could not find as a Norwegian woman not allowed to be a professional ski jumper? Will Odd one day romance Flo, whom we see Odd chat with once and seems kind of to long for his company. The character is likeable and someone an audience with any heart or patience will root for, but each viewer has to decide for themselves if Odd Horten’s story ever lays any true emotional jabs or remains a victim of its own exercise, a still movie sparely passing by.
Another image: Odd walking up stairs to his organized and meager dwelling in the rain. The stairway he climbs, a route he surely remembers, is framed between two houses, the rain visible in the streetlights that wash yellow over the stairway and not so visible in the otherwise blue night skies. Here we see two towns, a straight track between them, and a man stepping on the ground that will have him.
Joshua Sparks Joshua M. Sparks is a writer living in Chicago.
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