If you look at the 88% RottenTomatoes.com rating for The Turin Horse, it certainly appears the film has been getting a lot of love. However there are two completely separate reviews you could write for the movie – one for the cineaste art film fan, and another for the average Michael Bay movie loving moviegoer.
It probably won’t be a shock that the former will probably love this movie, while the latter will be bored stiff and wonder what on earth is going on.
So presuming you’re a member of the former group (or indeed a Michael Bay lover who also has more refined tastes), this is a film that may last nearly two-and-a-half hours with not much happening, but offers a lot in return.
The movie opens with a voiceover recounting a (possibly apocryphal) tale of the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche seeing a horse being flogged. He runs up to it and flings his arms around it, before spending the next 10 years in a state of madness and delirium. Whether the horse we’re then introduced to is meant to be this animal isn’t 100% clear, as the movie may be set in the late 1800s, but has a rather apocalyptic, end of the world edge.
Part of the film’s interest is in its formal conceit. Ever since his very earliest films (one of which, Hotel Magnezit, is included on the disc), director Bela Tarr has loved long shots. Over the 145 minutes, there are only 30 takes and a single location, with the movie never leaving a farmhouse and the area immediately outside. There’s very little dialogue either, with the two main characters – an aging father and his daughter – barely saying a word to one another.
This could have comes across as precious and slightly pretentious (and to be honest, there are parts of the film that could be slotted into a sketch show parody of art films and out of context elicit laughs instead of admiration) but Tarr’s attention to detail, stunning imagery and intense thought pulls it through. It admittedly helps if you know about Nietzsche, as the movie is shot through with allusiosn to and ideas based on the philosopher’s work, but even if you’re ignorant of the German, The Turin Horse’s spare yet dense aesthetic will still give you plenty of space to mull over the movie.
The film is set over six days on the aforementioned farmstead, where an endless storm is raging outside. As time passes, we see the repetition and bleakness of a father and his daughter’s lives, as they go about the same routine with no thought that there could be any escape, while outside in the barn, their horse is on its last legs. Indeed, as some sort of end of time scenario approaches, they continue to do the same thing, and any attempt they make to avoid the apocalypse seems half-hearted. There are occasional visitors, including a man looking for a drink (who Tarr has described as ‘a sort of Nietzschean shadow’) who assails the main duo with his ideas, and a group of gypsies who leave the daughter a religious book.
There are lots of idea in the film, many from Nietzsche, such as the relationship between master and slave, and that humanity will come to an end if people can’t aspire to more than just exist. But in its silence (with just the endless howling wind) and repetition, the film largely leaves itself open to thoughts, interpretations and ideas of the viewer – are the characters victims or conspirators in their own fate? Can they be both masters and slaves? Do they merely submit to the tedium that is their lives or has the surface become so ‘practiced’ that any desires underneath are hidden?
The Turin Horse is, to be poncey for a minute, about the transcendence of imagery. It’s rather like the way an art lover can stand in front of an impressionist or renaissance painting and even though it’s a still image, be drawn into a world of thought and ideas (Who are the people depicted? What is the artist trying to say?). Tarr’s film is a series of stark yet beautiful monochrome images, often deliberately held ‘too long’ to provoke the audience into some sort of reaction.
There will undoubtedly be a lot of people who will think The Turin Horse is a load of old pretentious wank, but if you allow it in, there’s a lot the film has to offer you, and purely in terms of imagery, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Bela Tarr has said this will be his last movie, but at least he’s going out on a high.
Overall Verdict: A stark, beautiful movie that leaves endless open spaces for the audience to bring their own thoughts to its long shots and captivating images.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac