There are many things that go off the road when Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson), a humble dairy farmer drives off an embankment in “The County,” the new film from “Rams” director Grímur Hákonarson. It isn’t made clear whether he simply fell asleep at the wheel at the end of a long night or if his meeting with Eyjólfur (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the head of the local co-op that keeps the small community a formidable business presence in an era of corporate consolidation, went poorly enough that he had thoughts of taking his own life, but his death has far-reaching implications, particularly for his wife Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), who was already eager to take a vacation from the rural burgh and now finds herself needing to double down to keep the farm afloat. Despite Eyjólfur’s offer to take care of everything following Reynir’s untimely passing, she is none too pleased about having to buy exclusively from other co-op businesses at exorbitant prices when she sees ways to cut costs and stay above red ink.
Less comedic than “Rams,” but no less charming, Hákonarson’s response to having such international success with his last film is to take on the world with his latest, impressively weaving in anxieties about surviving in a globalized marketplace into a small-town tale of a woman determined to preserve the business she and her husband built up by themselves. Inga’s heart isn’t necessarily in tending to the cows at the start of “The County,” but in Egilsdóttir‘s fierce performance, you see her resolve harden as her contempt grows for the co-op, which has complete control over the town, negotiating prices both for the outside world and inside of it. Small indignities such as having her grocery account suspended, which might be chalked up to a mistake, grow into obviously predatory practices such as being forced to buy fertilizer at triple the cost that it would be otherwise, making it virtually literal when the shit hits the fan once Inga writes a Facebook post that spreads through the town like wildfire and even brings out a news crew from Iceland National Broadcasting to do a story.
Thanks to some great production design by Bjarni “Massi” Sigurbjörnsson, you know Inga has a point when the houses of Eyjólfur and his right-hand man Leifur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) appear to be far nicer than the farmers they represent, and Hakorson, who knows how to gradually build tension in the most seemingly mundane situations, lights a fuse that doesn’t disappoint when things finally explode. Egilsdóttir is wonderfully taciturn throughout, but it’s a beautifully modulated performance that shows frustration turning into the reignition of her passion and there’s no small amount of irony of seeing Inga get a new start when thinking her world’s coming to an end. It’s a feeling that transcends the city limits of the small Icelandic town and even the screen in “The County,” a drama that resonates as a blast of fresh country air while conveying all the ways in which it can be suffocating.
“The County” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 15th at 9:30 am at the Scotiabank.