A movie about a lamb.
“What the fuck?”
The first line of credits started rolling when someone in the theater uttered this outburst, not shouting but loud enough that everyone could hear it in the tiny, six row show room. I went to go see Lamb at the earliest screening possible on a Sunday, and while I would normally find such behavior to be offensive, the guy pretty much echoed the vibe of everyone else in the room.
The directorial debut of Valdimar Jóhannsson, Lamb is a supernatural horror film about a sheep that gives birth to a sort of human/sheep hybrid. Noomi Rapace (who viewers may recognize as Elizabeth Shaw from the recent Alien movies) plays Maria with Hilmir Snær Guðnason as her husband Ingvar. The two are eventually joined by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as Ingvar’s brother Pétur. There are no other actors in the film.
This is going to be a short review, since Lamb is one of those films where you can’t talk about much without spoiling the movie. The setting of the film takes place in the distant countryside of Iceland, where neighbors are nonexistent and the lands are coated in a thick fog most of the time. Jóhannsson spends much of the film building the atmosphere through a series of connected events, and as the story progresses it leaves you genuinely wondering where it’s all going to go, and fearing where you think it might end up.
Jóhannsson gleefully plays with the heartstrings of the audience, first in teasing what we already knew from the trailer and why we are all in our seats; to see the lamb baby. The movie gives me feelings of a David Lynch film, where the audio eventually becomes a secondary character of its own, and when the film gets silent it has your full attention. While fleeting in some parts, the film does a great job with the lamb child. A mixture of puppetry, CG, and real actors creates an imagery that never feels like a crappy made-for-television film despite the obviously low budget.
Another great achievement in the movie is in the acting chops of the animals. As the family adopts the lamb, names her Ada and brings her into the house without a second thought, we see an Oscar-worthy performance from the sheep playing Ada’s mother. This sheep does not talk, nor is it given any unrealistic qualities at any point in the film. But we see her grief, her anger, and her desperation as clearly as if it was a genuine human pulling the strings. This sheep is the kind of creature that the “actors” on Adam Sandler movies couldn’t play understudy to. The same goes for the rest of the flock, as well as the family’s cat and dog who never lose their animalistic behavior while very clearly playing a deliberate part in the story.
The story of Lamb seems to center around the lies that we tell ourselves and the dangers of entertaining our delusions in the name of finding happiness, as well as the propensity of even the most caring people to view animals as little more than a commodity, a creature amounting to little more than a number tagged on their ear. It’s slow, thoughtful, and kind of a horror movie in the sense that Eraserhead is a horror movie. Icelandic Eraserhead with an actual lamb baby thing. And like a good David Lynch film, there’s going to be a lot of conversation among the film’s fans on what exactly this film was supposed to represent.
I’ll be waiting for the Criterion collection to buy this on DVD.
Give the mama sheep an Oscar, for crying out loud. One content warning of note, there is a highly graphic scene of a sheep giving birth multiple times toward the start of the movie. Something to avert your eyes for the squeamish.
As an arthouse snob bastard, I loved every part of this film from the cinematography to the acting, the script, and the fact that by the time the credits were rolling everyone in the theater including myself had an expression like they really needed to go home and digest what they just saw. Some are going to be here for the spectacle of lamb baby, while the general audience for this film will similarly be arthouse people.