Odd Horten (Bård Owe) is a loner, a man of few words whose meticulous habits suit his work as a train engineer. O’Horten opens as his life changes. After 40 years of service, adhering to precise schedules and countless comings and goings, he has turned 67, the required retirement age in Norway. He plans to return to Oslo by plane after making his final run, a sort of quiet rebellion to commemorate the event.
It’s clear enough that he will manage his retired life much the same as he has his working one, with consistent routines and a decided lack of improvisation. He will pay regular visits to his mother Vera (Kari Lolland) in her nursing home and will finally spend time on his boat. But then Horten is thrown into something of an existential crisis when the unthinkable happens. Following a party in his honor, thrown by his fellow engineers, he oversleeps and misses his last train. Horrified and ashamed, he stands forlorn on the platform as the train pulls out of the station without him. Worse, when he’s discovered by railroad authorities, he panics and runs away.
The idea that a man who has defined himself by his habits would feel lost without them isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But this business of missing the train, or more to the point, Horten’s outsized response to it, complicates things a bit. Retiring is one thing; undermining your entire professional reputation is quite another. Horten had just been hailed at the retirement party for his unwavering reliability, an accolade that now seems like a mockery. His self-image as an engineer and his pride (however understated) are undone.
This personal upheaval then disrupts his future plans since, in a way, he is not the same man who made them. Horten has to decide how he is going to live from here on out. At first, he tries to continue on as if nothing had ever happened. He calls to check on his mother then visits her. It’s not clear if this is the first time he has seemed like a stranger to her, but it’s certainly the first time during one of his visits that he’s been a stranger to himself, so her blank, unrecognizing gaze only reinforces her son’s sense of alienation. On the other hand, the distance also brings a kind of freedom. He returns to his apartment and makes a call about selling his boat — named Vera.
The film takes its time working out Horten’s identity crisis visually. When he misplaces his ever-present pipe, it seems an inauspicious event, one we might assume has happened before, given his ample supply of back up pipes in his apartment. Yet, the loss is a turning point for Horten: suddenly, all his pipes are deficient. When he arrives at his regular shop to purchase a new one, he discovers the owner has died, which only reinforces Horten’s anxiety. Though he still wears his engineer’s uniform, he eventually pulls off the epaulets. When he loses his shoes at the gym, he emerges in a stolen pair of bright red high heels. As obvious as it sounds, his transformation is handled with charm and humor, and without the expected montagey makeover effect.
At last he meets Sissener (Espen Skjønberg), a man about his age, lying in the street. In an act of kindness, or maybe daring, he helps Sissener home, where they share a drink and stories. Sissner talks of being a diplomat and collector, a past that sounds exotic to Horten, who doesn’t talk about trains but of Vera. She was a ski jumper in her youth and had always wanted him to ski jump as well, but, as he puts it, “I never dared. And now it’s too late.” This prompts Sissener to describe what he calls a “gift” for driving blindfolded.
It’s a rather obvious metaphor for life, but Sissener means it literally, and convinces his new friend to ride with him: “It’s a beautiful day for driving blind, Horten.” Like many of the comic scenes in O’Horten, this one is both surreal and sad. Horten absorbs the lesson about living spontaneously, taking chances and reinventing himself. With most post-babyboomers working for one employer for less than five years, Horten’s crisis may be a little obscure for some viewers. Still, his pluck is heartening, and so are his memories of his mother.