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‘The Ox’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 30, 1992

The opening sequence in "The Ox" ambushes you with its brutality: A wild-eyed man is staring at the enormous ox pacing outside his dilapidated homestead. It's winter in Smaland, Sweden, in the 1860s. Without warning, he rushes out, gripping an enormous mallet . . . .

What follows next is so horrible it resonates for the rest of the movie. The effect is highly appropriate. This single act -- done in a fit of intense starvation -- will affect the unemployed laborer (Stellan Skarsgard) for the rest of his life. Even in these hard times -- two disastrous harvests in a row -- the misdeed is serious. The dead animal belongs to farm owner Lennart Hjulstrom, a neighbor and perennial employer of Skarsgard.

Should Skarsgard be caught, he'll suffer severe punishment. With the help of appalled wife Ewa Froling, Skarsgard carves up the meat and hides it. But in this tightknit community, presided over by watchful priest Max von Sydow, it's hard to keep a secret.

"Ox" shows the excruciating consequences Skarsgard, his wife and their baby daughter will have to undergo. When Skarsgard is inevitably imprisoned, he has to weather an unthinkable span of faith-shaking time. Froling is without money, her daughter is starving and lonely men with bread are sniffing at her door; she's too proud to appeal to Hjulstrom's wife, Liv Ullmann.

Director Sven Nykvist, best known as Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer, has no problem conveying the surface grimness of the situation. Skarsgard's jail stretch is a gray, sepulchral period -- in direct contrast with his warmer-toned, happier times. But Nykvist's story lacks the epic, all-encompassing dimension it so earnestly aims for. When events have run their course, the only thing left is the grisly memory of a dead ox.

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