'O'Horten': In Oslo, A Midnight Train To Anywhere

Bard Owe as Odd Horten in 'O'Horten' i

End Of The line? After missing his last day on the job, Odd Horten (Bard Owe) goes on an existential journey. Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Pictures Classics
Bard Owe as Odd Horten in 'O'Horten'

End Of The line? After missing his last day on the job, Odd Horten (Bard Owe) goes on an existential journey.

Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Pictures Classics

O'Horten

  • Director: Bent Hamer
  • Genre: Foreign
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

PG-13: Brief nudity

With: Bard Owe, Espen Skjonberg, Ghita Norby

Bard Owe as Odd Horten, Espen Skjonberg as Trygve Sissener in 'O'Horten' i

Blind Ambition: With only a bit of convincing, Odd (Bard Owe) takes to driving around town with Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjonberg), who claims to possess a very special gift. by Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Classics hide caption

itoggle caption by Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Classics
Bard Owe as Odd Horten, Espen Skjonberg as Trygve Sissener in 'O'Horten'

Blind Ambition: With only a bit of convincing, Odd (Bard Owe) takes to driving around town with Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjonberg), who claims to possess a very special gift.

by Hans-Jorgan Osnes/Sony Classics

Aside from grumpy old men and understanding grannies, Hollywood has little use for the elderly, even at a time when aging boomers threaten to become the mother of all niche markets.

In fact, for movies about wrinklies, as we British affectionately dub the old — enough already with the colorless, odorless "senior citizens" — you pretty much have to turn to Europe, where leathery skin has never been considered box-office poison. Witness O'Horten, a gently existential rite-of-passage dramedy from Norway, in which veteran actor Bard Owe plays Odd Horten, a railway engineer whose cratered face looks as though it's been run over by the Oslo Express.

The incongruously named Odd is on the cusp of a retirement we sense he doesn't much welcome, and like many children of risk-taking parents (his mother, like director Bent Hamer's, was a ski-jumper in her youth), he's a cautious, inexpressive fellow who thrives on the reliable and routine.

Work has been Odd Horten's life; his closest emotional tie is to his pet bird, and his grand plan for retirement, which he confides to his sympathetic landlady (love-interest alert) as if it were a state secret, is to move to Oslo. On his last day at work, Odd can be found stolidly ironing the railway uniform that has defined his identity for decades.

Odd, in other words, is long overdue for adventure, which begins when a chance encounter with a small pajama-clad boy causes the unflaggingly dependable worker to miss the final train of his career.

O'Horten is a slight tale whose plot, if that's what you call the engineer's restless ambles around a city he discovers he barely knows, differs little from the average inspirational movie about a plucky senior whose life alters for the better at the 11th hour.

Odd's efforts to go about his business as usual are thwarted when things start to go wrong in random, barely perceptible ways. His mother, who's sunk so far into dementia that she can manage only a vacant smile for her visiting son, perks up ever so slightly — and, of course, prophetically — when he ventures a joke about her beloved sport.

Later, in the middle of minute negotiations with a potential buyer of his beloved boat, Odd slips away without a word; he ends up swimming naked in the middle of the night, walking Oslo's icy streets in high-heeled red shoes, then driving around the frozen town with a crazed old drunk who claims he knows how to drive blind.

O'Horten flirts too wantonly with whimsy to be more than a placeholder compared to Hamer's Kitchen Stories, or his Charles Bukowski adaptation, Factotum. Yet whenever the film threatens to derail, it's rescued by a tone of tranquil loneliness that holds sentimentality at bay, at least for a while.

It's also rescued by arresting visuals: Hamer's a lush minimalist with an eye for stark urban contrasts. Here, the twinkling lights of Oslo give way vertiginously to a black void glimpsed first in terror, then rapture, from the top of the city's Olympic ski jump. After an ice storm, a suited businessman slides gravely down a city street on his backside, clutching his briefcase.

Hamer sustains his goofily stately pace, but the movie's palette unobtrusively warms as his reserved hero, becalmed by a lifetime spent in thrall to a dynamic mother, opens up to the expanding possibilities of the world — and his power to move about in it. O'Horten would certainly be better off without its saggy closing uplift, but there's something fresh and compelling about the universality of oddness that Odd discovers, and learns to embrace before it's too late.

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