Sensory, sporadically goofy and at times ominous, Valdimar Johansson’s debut feature Lamb is a folklore surrealist dark comedy/horror thriller that delivers some great impact with arresting visuals and strong performances rather than endless gore or tedious jump scares. An impressively mounted genre film that merges art-house gloss with psychological horror, Lamb recalls the work of more minimalist horror films, echoing other films with very limited settings and characters from the indie horror cult classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, to Cube, from big Hollywood studio films like 10 Cloverfield Lane, from old school horror classics, such as Steven Spielberg’s Duel, to breakthrough “found footage”” indies like The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Paranormal Activity, all the way to more recent ones like the work of Robert Eggers The Witch (2016) and The Lighthouse (2019), to Revenge (2018) and Unfriended . Jóhannsson carries on the same methods and does an exceptional job here along with cinematographer Eli Arenson in merging impeccable craftsmanship, meticulous compositions, and alluring visuals with brooding tension along with a very minimal cast. The film also carries on the concept of minimal horror with very limited settings, along with very few characters that takes place in a remote house within the Icelandic countryside.
In her most remarkable dramatic role, and yet Noomi Rapace is very commanding in her performance that is very vulnerable and expressionistic. Her presence and psychology is felt in nearly every scene, and it’s perhaps her strongest work to date, in which she is best known in being the lead in the original Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” films. She is also surrounded by small supporting characters headed by Hilmir Snaer Gudnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as estranged brothers in which she is married to one of them. Lamb may be a more eccentric horror film with a very strong female performance. Released by the indie giant distributor A24, that is releasing this film theatrically in wide-markets, the film should eventually find an audience and perhaps even find a cult audience with its bizarre narrative, dark humor, and polished artistry.
Just like other audacious films this year like Annette and Titane, it is important to stay vague when discussing major plot details when reviewing this film. Without revealing too much away, the narrative chronicles a distraught married couple Maria (Roopace) and Ingvar (Guðnason), who operate a sheep farm in Iceland. The film opens up with a ravishing unbroken long take tracking shot of a group of sheep walking on a hillside. The shot instantly recalls the work of world renowned Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr (Sátántangó · Werckmeister Harmonies, The Turin Horse ) who surprisingly comes up in the credits as an Executive Producer. The film very much unfolds in the spirit of a Tarr film as well. Structured with three chapters of the film that are labeled without titles, during the first chapter the camera observes Maria and Ingvar working on their sheep farm as they do their mundane duties of raising and breeding sheep. They also tend to their livestock and harvest crops with their tractors and machinery. You can sense tension between the two as they barely speak to each other as their marriage feels incomplete. There is also comical relief in the film as we get hilarious reaction shots from their pet cat and dog who observe their duties.
Something bizarre happens in the film once one of the lambs gets pregnant. Maria assists one of the lambs to give birth to a baby lamb. I do not recommend watching the trailer to the film, I actually watched it after watching the film and it reveals too much plot. Let’s just say the birth of the lamb serves as an abstraction, and also recalls recent films like Annette and Titane in how the lamb in Lamb serves an abstraction of suppressed grief as they begin to treat it as their own child. Just like baby Annette appears as an illusion with the puppetry in Leos Carax’s Annette, or the metallic pregnancy in Titane, screenwriters Sjón and Jóhannsson (Also serving as co-writer), also utilize abstractions in similar ways that are very symbolic in shaping the characters internal perspectives and yearnings. While it would sound very absurdist and downright silly to explain how the sheep half-way transforms into a young girl and dresses like a small child, it certainly comes off ridiculous, but eventually you surrender to it and understand what it symbolically means. For example, it’s like the massive bottle ketchup being sprayed on a characters white t-shirt in David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (2006) that could possibly serve as a metaphor from a termination of a pregnancy, or how a t-shirt suddenly walks on it’s own in a backyard in Miranda July’s The Future (2011), abstractions sound silly as you explain them, but they are meant to be interpreted and experienced than to be explained.
What is exemplary in this film is just how absurdist and silly the dark humor can be, you can’t help but not find some of the visual gags of the sheep to be comical. However, how the actors play it off with so much effective drama prevents it from being complete absurdist horror that could have easily played off like a riff on older Peter Jackson horror films like Bad Taste and Brain Dead. During the second chapter of the film, the narrative and dialogue begins to kick in more. Once Maria and Ingvar recapture their ambiance once they adopt the baby lamb they end up naming Ava, other plot devices occurring like the mother lamb getting envious and wanting her baby back, as well as Ignvar’s brother Pétur (Haraldsson) comes to stay with him. A once member of a one-hit-wonder glam rock 2000s rock band, Petur can sense that Maria and Ingvar raising the sheep is very bizarre and unusual. They inform him to not lecture how they live their lives as he stays there with him. As you chuckle away at the premise, the actors are very affecting in their roles, as they play everything very serious and they never resort to caricature or slapstick.
Soon, Petur ends up finding himself deeply attracted to Maria, and this leads Maria to be torn between the brothers. Meanwhile the sheep Ava becomes more and more bizarre and creepier. This ends up driving everyone into an abyss of madness and everyone involved knows the most effective way to build a horror film is to mislead the viewer, and to allow the viewer to sense impending doom is about to unfold. Therefore, it’s too bad that some of the film does become overly silly, it would have been more effective if more surprises were left offscreen. Despite just a few missteps, Lamb merges the absurd with psychological horror details with perceptions, in what the characters could be imagining is what we partially see. The first part is grounded more with visuals and is more minimal by design, where the third act offers more horror movie tropes. Regardless, those looking for more uniqueness in their horror, the film does take on the process of grief and the process of how people handle their grief, the role and challenges of being in a marriage, the burdens of parenting and motherhood.
The camera stays close to Noomi Rapace, capturing her anguish, her tears and tracking with her vulnerabilities and livelihood of being a sheep farmer. While very gorgeous, she has a rough-around-the-edges aura about her that makes her roles more credible; it’s easy to emotionally connect with her, to go on this bizarre journey involving a sheep child that is downright preposterous, but here is fostered with a very strong performance on her part along and rich artistry. In this role, she appears more mature and emotionally unyielding than she’s been in before (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus, The Drop). All silly or as creepy it all may be, Lamb excels as an effectively moody, eerily horror thriller during the payoff that sneaks up on you and offers a few twists that are unexpecting. Audiences will be left with a contradictory movie that is hard to decide if it is goofy or illogical, or for that matter if it’s ominous and sophisticated depending what moment you are experiencing in the film. Regardless, one can’t deny how well acted and very well crafted the film is.