By Alex McPherson
Director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s offbeat, poetic, and emotionally complex “Lamb” stands in a league of its own, adding yet another gem to A24’s ever-expanding oeuvre.
This bleakly twisted fairy tale unfolds within a secluded Icelandic mountain range bathed in thick fog that reflects the quiet gloom of our main characters, sheep farmers María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). One night, an unseen, heavily breathing presence startles nearby horses and farm animals, targeting one sheep in particular. Meanwhile, María and Ingvar go about their days, which involve maintaining crops and caring for their animals, with subtle detachment. Even though they enjoy each other’s company, an unspoken rift exists between them. Something’s missing in their relationship, casting a dark shadow over their household.
When one of their sheep gives birth to an odd hybrid that has to be seen to be believed, María creates a motherly bond with this creature, whom she names Ada. Ingvar, initially shocked but determined to ensure his wife’s happiness, gradually slips into his new role as a father. Much to the dismay of Ada’s birth mother, who bleats outside their bedroom window every night, Ada has rendered both María’s and Ingvar’s lives more fulfilling. However, as Ada grows up and the film progresses through three distinct chapters in her life, a sense of dreadful anticipation looms — reaching a boiling point when Ingvar’s rowdy and unpredictable brother, Pétur () shows up on their doorstep.
A cinematic morality tale confronting humankind’s flawed connection to nature and the perils of motherhood, “Lamb” is difficult to describe, but an absolute treat to witness. The film takes viewers on a mesmeric trip through valleys of sadness, joyfulness, and fear. It’s utterly impressive that the plot’s crazier elements don’t hijack its dead-serious heart.
“Lamb” exudes patience, nearly to its detriment — in shot compositions, pacing, and vague nuances in character interactions — to set a disquieting mood. For the first 20 minutes or so, dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, letting us observe María’s and Ingvar’s ennui along with them. Jóhannsson forces us to sit in their melancholy, surrounded by their sheep and pets who seemingly question their decision to adopt Ada, providing some of the best animal acting I’ve ever seen.
Neither María nor Ingvar question the creature’s origins — they have a new purpose in life and a chance to rekindle what they lost in the past. Guðnason beautifully conveys Ingvar’s transformation into a loving father, but this is truly Rapace’s film, and we can see through her eyes that she will not, under any circumstances, lose this opportunity to be a mother. As a result, her uncompromising love for Ada seems wholly believable, and even heartbreaking, for Ada’s arguably not hers to begin with.
This dichotomy between nature vs. nurture fuels the drama, as we want this family to thrive, but recognize the moral ambiguity of rearing Ada away from her kin and robbing her of agency. Indeed, “Lamb” explores the humans’ connection to Ada more than Ada herself, but perhaps that’s intentional. She’s inhabiting two different, opposing worlds, and Jóhannsson emphasizes her inability to truly fit in.
Pétur’s arrival brings with it some welcome comedic relief, but “Lamb” soon slips back into a slow-burn dread leading into its inevitable but nevertheless shocking conclusion. In keeping with Jóhannsson’s folkloric inspirations, the film resembles a potent mix of the fantastical and the grounded, basking its absurdism in a cautionary reminder of nature’s colossal power and the extreme lengths some take to assuage grief, no matter the repercussions.
“Lamb” would have benefited from tighter editing here and there, particularly surrounding a somewhat unnecessary love triangle that Pétur initiates, shifting focus away from Ada, but this is a wild and wooly debut feature. If viewers give themselves over to the film’s unorthodox premise, they’ll find one of the most memorably unnerving stories of the year.
“Lamb” is a horror-mystery-drama from Iceland, directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Rated R for some bloody violent images and sexuality/nuditym its runtime is 1 hour, 46 minutes. In theaters Oct. 8. Alex’s Grade: A-