O’Horton (2009) Review

Cinematic storytelling is typically done through a three-act structure. It’s formulaic, but that’s usually a good thing, since it helps guide the audience and allows the most story to be told in the least amount of time. As such, each scene should be used to either advance the plot and/or reveal more about the character(s). If a storyteller wants to break the formula, that’s fine, but the story must break in an entertaining way or else what’s the point? O’Horton gets the first and third acts done well, but the second act breaks away from the formula just enough to muddle the film’s story with unnecessary scenes.

O’Horton tells the story of Odd Horton (Bard Owe), a train engineer who’s about to retire. He lives a simple, routine life and is dedicated to his job.  Now that he’s about to be unemployed and without the certainty of his rail, he seems unsure of how to fill his hours. Given this premise, it’s reasonable to expect that Horton would adjust to his new reality in interesting ways as he redefines himself as a retiree. Regrettably, this is not the case. Instead, he’s plagued by random events that don’t really advance the plot or give any insight into his character.

At one point in the film, Horton must decide if he’s going to sell his boat or not. The way the buyer talks about the arrangement, it seems like this decision is a big one, but it’s impossible to know for sure since there’s literally no background given about the boat or its significance to Horton other than the fact that it’s named after Horton’s mother. From this, the audience can extrapolate whatever it wants, but that isn’t satisfying storytelling considering how much screen time is devoted to this plot point.

On the flipside, the film can get heavy-handed with its message. Late in the story, a character explains the origin of a specific rock and how old it is. The rock, apparently, isn’t through with its journey despite its age. The story of the rock is obviously an allegory for Horton’s story and is also a simple device to bludgeon audiences over the head with in case they didn’t know what O’Horton was about.

In between these scenes are odd moments that are difficult to justify as being necessary to the film. While dining in a restaurant, Horton witnesses a man being arrested. In another scene, Horton falls asleep in a public sauna and finds his shoes stolen from the locker room, forcing him, in turn, to steal someone else’s shoes. Later, he befriends a drunkard who thinks he can drive with his eyes closed. Viewers will be hard pressed to make sense of these scenes, while other spots seem right at home in the film, but fall just short of being a perfect fit. Having lost his favorite pipe, Horton visits a tobacconist he used to frequent only to find the proprietor passed away and his wife now running the business. She remembers Horton and suggests her husband’s favorite pipe. It was the ideal moment to reflect on friendship, death and new experiences, but instead, the scene takes a more absurd angle.

The performances are adequate, with Bard Owe solidly carrying the film. It’s a shame that the character doesn’t give him much to work with. Horton is a quiet man with no opinions who’s content to just go through the motions. As such, Owe is able to turn in a performance that belies his age as he blithely drifts from scene to scene.

O’Horton is wonderfully shot and is beautiful to behold from the very beginning. It’s a wondrous sight to experience the train tracks of Norway from Horton’s perspective as he enters the uncertain darkness of tunnels only to emerge again into the reassuring light of the snowy landscapes. Despite its jumbled second act, O’Horton is still a film about exploring beyond the comfort zone and learning to grow at whatever age. That’s a story anyone can appreciate.