2021, R, 106 min. Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson. Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Oct. 8, 2021
Perhaps the all-around strangest movie to be getting a wide release this year, Lamb is a movie best entered blindly. Though, if you’re at all logged on and in the sphere of Film Twitter release hype, it may have been difficult to avoid the ludicrous selling point that the film is built on when the trailer was released. Nevertheless, if you’ve managed to stay cold for this one, all you need to know is this: Sheepfarmers María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guðnason) live a seemingly peaceful, if emotionally distant, life in an idyllic Icelandic valley where they tend to the land and their animals. When one of their sheep gives birth to a notably peculiar baby lamb, María and Ingvar see it as an ample opportunity to mend their relationship and come together as a family.
Set up as yet another in a long line of A24-released self-serious, portentous genre films, Lamb’s ultimate saving grace is in its low-key absurdism. The film starts as you’d expect: long, wordless, thoughtful shots of our main couple working their farm, helping their sheep birth their lambs (effectively setting the disconcerting mood by shooting the process, up-close and in real life), eating quiet dinners together – all presented in a cold blue-gray color palette and detached aura. It seems to suggest a greater unspoken emotional turmoil between the characters that’s bound to boil over; it’s also exactly what you would expect from one of these ponderous, This Is About Something modern arthouse horrors.
But then there’s a shift. Once the titular lamb in question becomes involved, the film becomes more of a surprisingly radical subversion of the tropes of this extremely familiar structure. The image of this lamb is so profoundly preposterous, and thus in its own way so completely gripping, that it’s impossible not to let out astonished laughter at it. Whether director Valdimar Jóhannsson (in a bold feature debut) means for it to be as funny as it is can be called into question, but it works regardless. As the characters continue to exist and operate within the confines of the dreary, esoteric movie that this appears to be, the titular lamb works to move this into a space of almost a satirical skewering of the genre. It’s best summed up by Ingvar's reprobate brother, Pétur (Haraldsson), who arrives at the farm unexpectedly and is thrust into the situation: “What the fuck is this?”
Taken away from that lens of comparison, Lamb is still ridiculous but by way of being something of a modern fable, a slice of atmospheric folk horror for today’s audiences. At its core, there’s a genuinely affecting story about parenthood and the burden of loss. María and Ingvar both carry a great sadness within them, and the fact that they see a potential to heal within their unlikely adoptee lends its presence and their love for it a certain sweetness, and the story an apt mournful quality. This balance of touching sentiment and ridiculous imagery doesn’t quite carry through to the ending, which leaves things rather abrupt and cold. Still, if you like your affected character dramas with a healthy dose of weird insanity, you may just find yourself head over hooves.