'O'Horten' makes aging seem even grimmer

Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 12:00am
In O'Horten, an aging train engineer is canned because management feels he's too old, but as the story unfolds, the engineer proves to have more dignity than the rest of his ex-coworkers.

The main message in Bent Hamer’s terse, often provocative film O'Horten, which opens Friday, is quite clear: Modern society has little use for its elderly, and even less desire to see them gainfully employed and contributing beyond a certain age.

Odd Horten (Baard Owe) enjoys being a train engineer, and there’s no evidence that he’s not still very good at his job, despite being 67. But that number has management convinced it’s time to show O’Horten the door, so he’s canned, even though the first few minutes of the film serve as both a reminder of how he got the position and his love for the railroad.

He has a retirement dinner that’s an exercise in tedium, as co-workers try to find the right thing to say, and O’Horten tries to pretend as though he enjoys the tributes, games and in-house politics.

Oddly, as the night wears on and the employees get more drunk, it’s the elder statesman O’Horten who maintains his dignity in the face of some rather bad behavior. Sadly, O’Horten doesn’t even get a chance to finish his last run in style. A bad accident makes him miss that opportunity.

From there, things quickly spiral downhill for O’Horten. There’s his disabled and dying mother, whose reactions to her son aren’t exactly stirring or sentimental. He goes to the gym to relax and manages to lose his shoes. A longtime friend suddenly dies, and O’Horten is having regular nightmares.

The interesting thing about Hamer’s directorial technique is that he injects lots of humor into these exchanges, with scenes ranging from being droll to dark, hilarious to sad and even maddening. O’Horten continually scores as much with physical responses and facial reactions as he does with dialog, showing at various times pain, frustration, anger, despair and occasionally a sense of wonderment at everything falling down around him.

Since he doesn’t set anything up as you’d expect, Hamer isn’t going to end O'Horten in a predictable manner either, and its conclusion will be either satisfactory or disturbing, depending on how you’ve responded to this point at what’s been shown.

Despite a lack of supplemental events or secondary actors to take some of the load of O’Horten (who is tremendous), the film still makes plenty of cogent and important points that can be applied to almost every contemporary society anywhere on the globe.

O'Horten doesn’t exactly offer a warm and fuzzy view of humanity, and certainly scares you about aging. Hopefully contemporary society will eventually examine its treatment of older and elderly citizens.

Written and directed by: Bent Hamer
Starring: Baard Owe, Ghita Norby, Espen Skjonberg, Henny Moan, Bjorn Floberg, Kai Remlow, Per Jansen, Bjarte Hjelmeland, Gard Eidsvold, Lars Oyno, Anette Sagen
Time: 89 minutes
Rating: NR
Our view: Extremely bleak and pessimistic, but well acted and intriguing.
Extra info: French film with English subtitles