In a film I can only describe as the most A24 of all A24 movies, the Icelandic-set Lamb tells the story of an isolated sheep farm, where husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and wife Maria (Noomi Rapace, who learned Icelandic as a kid but has never used it in a film before now) live a regimented, isolated and fairly subdued life looking after their flock, planting a few crops, and occasionally overseeing the birth of lamb in their barn. One night, we hear strange sounds outside the barn that eventually make their way inside. Some people refer to this film as a horror movie, which I’m not sure I’m on board with, but it’s not without its tense and scary moments, including this one. We don’t see what makes the noise, but a few months later, a new lamb is born and something about it shocks and intrigues the farmers.
Even before this moment, there is something ethereal and other-worldly about this place. A mist hangs over it frequently, and it becomes clear that we’re in the midst of a modern-day fairy tale or folk story. Lamb is absolutely dripping with atmosphere, and we’re always vaguely aware that something is lurking just along the perimeter of the property, sometimes stepping in to cause trouble, but mostly satisfied being a creeping dread that makes certain we never let our guard down.
Marking the debut from writer/director (and former special effect technician) Valdimar Jóhannsson, the movie elegantly allows us to come to it and its wonders, rather than have the characters simply give away all of its delicate elements through exposition. What was born in the barn that day was clearly something unique, perhaps sickly, but Maria bundles it and takes it to the house where it lives and grows with the couple in a room that clearly belonged, at some point recently, to a child who is no longer alive. I’d rather not go into too much detail about what is going on specifically (although everything from the trailer to other critics already have), but when we finally get a look at the creature in question, it will likely take your breath away—perhaps in horror, but more likely with acute fascination.
From this point forward, Lamb becomes an exercise in small discoveries. Perhaps the biggest interference in this tranquil life occurs when Ingvar’s troublemaker brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up on the doorstep looking to stay for a while. But when he gets a look at the latest addition to the dwelling, he doesn’t see something beautiful; he sees a monster, an affront to God that needs to be put down out of decency. And it’s in their defense of their decision to keep this thing in their house as their own child that we realize this couple is living in denial about the strangeness of the situation, almost like a mild form of mental illness. Rapace rather excels at roles like this, but even she stands out as a woman searching for something to heal her aching heart. Lamb is about emotional transformation, and after spending time with the new addition to the family, even Petur begins to recognize the inherent sweetness of this being and becomes fiercely protective of it before long.
A case can easily be made (and probably has been) that this creature could be a religious metaphor—literally a lamb of God—who has been placed on this earth and in this family’s life to heal them. I love speculative stories about how Jesus or any prophet would be accepted today if they suddenly showed up in the house of a poor family or as a homeless person. How accepting would people of faith really be to someone like that? (I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.) And that’s essentially what’s happening in Lamb. Would anyone recognize a creature like this as an agent of God? I don’t think it’s saying too much to say that a definitive answer is given as to what this being is by the end of the film, but it’s certainly out of left field, and I both loved the reveal and found the film’s shift into tragedy genuinely rattling, mostly because I didn’t see it coming (even though it had been lurking nearby for the whole movie). I cannot wait to see what filmmaker Jóhannsson brings us next; he’s a gifted storyteller, with ideas for days and style that made such an impression on me that I found this film impossible to shake.
Lamb is now playing in theaters.
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