An engineered life rolls into mystifying places

Bård Owe plays a train engineer whose life takes unfamiliar turns after he retires. Bård Owe plays a train engineer whose life takes unfamiliar turns after he retires. (Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 12, 2009
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'O'Horten" is a precise, deadpan drama of slapstick existentialism - a Bent Hamer movie, in other words. The hero is a 67-year-old Oslo train engineer named Odd Horten (Bård Owe), but, really, there's nothing very odd about him. He's neatly pressed, polite, reserved. The only time he seems to unbend is in the cab of his train as it cuts through the glowing white snowfields of Norway. Traveling in a straight line gives Horten joy: He gets to go places while never veering off course.

"O'Horten" is what happens to this man when he retires and the strangeness of life finally comes rushing in. The movie's a little like "About Schmidt" refashioned into a Jacques Tati comedy (Owe, with his stiff posture and long pipe, even resembles the French comedy great). Horten, suddenly presented with forks in the road, keeps taking the odder path: Locked out of his own retirement party, he climbs up a scaffolding and through the apartment window of a neighbor, where he's trapped by a pesky 6-year-old boy who needs a lullaby.

Likewise, Horten's attempt to sell off his boat somehow results in this lanky, gnomic figure stranded on the tarmac of an international airport, from which security rescues him and gives him a cavity probe, just in case. The film's about eruptions in life's dull daily train schedule, and soon enough Horten learns to ride them like waves, never changing his dutiful expression. He becomes a solitary rebel: A stolen midnight skinny-dip at a public pool is interrupted by two giddy lesbian lovers. Horten swipes their red high heels and totters away unseen.

As with his 2003 arthouse hit, "Kitchen Stories," Hamer is fascinated with orderly men mussed up by a mysterious universe. ("Factotum," his 2005 American film based on a Charles Bukowski work, is about the opposite: a chaotic man confronting a button-down world. It didn't quite work.) At one point, Horten encounters a man (Espen Skjonberg) who appears to be a bum, then claims to be a diplomat, then ultimately turns out to be something else entirely. He offers the hero some sage advice: "It's never too late for blind driving." "O'Horten" is unusual in that its metaphors are baldly obvious but its style is oblique, framed and paced with a perfectionist's sense of design. Each scene is a miniature of ultradry humanist comedy. Only at the end do we understand the vast emotional terrain traveled.

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O'HORTEN Written and directed by: Bent Hamer

Starring: Bård Owe

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 86 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (brief underwater nudity)

In Norwegian, with subtitles

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