★★★★☆

Slipping under the radar at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, The County was nevertheless a hit with those who sought it out. Released on Curzon Home Cinema this week, this western-tinged, visceral Icelandic drama deserves as large an audience as possible.

Despite the obvious Icelandic setting of Grímur Hákonarson’s (Rams) third fiction feature, its sublime rugged landscape invariably invites comparisons with the American western. The harsh beauty of The County’s setting – not to mention its austere, indomitable protagonist – are pure classic western, while the chill climate and mountain ranges more immediately recall the icy Montanan landscapes of Kelly Reichardt’s brilliant neo-western drama, Certain Women.

The blasted austerity of its setting is embodied in the stubborn focus of its heroine, dairy farmer Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), fighting against the corrupt co-operative  – standing in for the gangster-ranchers of your John Ford films or your Shanes, who ruthlessly control how much money the local farmers must pay and receive for their goods. Her farm’s mounting debts are turned a blind eye as long as Inga’s husband, Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) agrees to inform on other farmers not abiding by the co-op’s draconian rules. It’s only after Reynir is killed in a lorry accident – suicide is mooted as an explanation but the exact circumstances of his death remain shadowy – that Inga realises the extent of the co-op’s stranglehold on the county’s farming community.

One damning Facebook post from her later and Inga is warned in no uncertain terms not to upset them further. Yet in true Icelandic style, director Hákonarson finds the absurd comedy in their intimidation tactics: quite apart from being labelled as the ridiculous-sounding ‘co-op mafia’, their tough-guy routines do little to rattle Inga. While she channels bitter regret at not having built a better life into a productive rage, the co-op doofuses feigning machismo are left standing with their proverbials in their hands while she gathers community support for an alternative, fairly-run co-op.

One of the group’s lieutenants, Leifur, discovers her resolve to his detriment after she threatens him with a shovel – with a low-slung close up of her weapon that cheekily references Sergio Leone – while a final unwelcome visit to her farm spurs Inga to drive over to their offices and spray the building with 600 gallons of liquid cow shit. Hákonarson balances this absurdity with a serious portrayal of provincial corruption, offering a portrait of capitalism as a system that clothes itself in the garments of paternalist protection and stability, while funnelling power upwards and away from the people who are actually responsible for production.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm