Producers: Hrönn Kristinsdóttir, Sara Nassim, Piodor Gustafsson, Erik Rydell, Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska and Jan Naszewski Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson Screenplay: Sjón and Valdimar Jóhannsson Cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Gudnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Ingvar Sigurdsson Distributor: A24 Films
If the recent Netflix film “The Starling” dealt with a couple’s reaction to the loss of a child with mawkish sentimentality, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s “Lamb” does so with unsettling surrealism. Though it has horrific elements and doses of gallows humor, it’s basically a darkly fractured fairy-tale of obsessive parenthood, and a creepily effective one.
It’s also a film that will work best if a viewer isn’t aware of its central conceit and is unprepared for the oddball premise. So the reader should know that the following paragraphs contain spoilers one should avoid reading before seeing it. Consider yourself warned.
The film, co-writer by Jóhannsson and writer Sjón, it set in a remote area of Iceland, a gloomy, often foggy region where the skittish animals are frightened by some force they sense in the mountains. There María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) operate a sheep ranch. They are a quiet, reserved couple nursing a deep sadness—the loss of their little daughter Ada.
As they assist their ewes as they give birth, an oddity emerges—a newborn with a human body topped by a lamb’s head. They effectively adopt the hybrid, naming it Ada and taking it into their home to raise as their own “little lamb,” much to the irritation its birth mother, which bleats outside their window until María takes matters into her own hands.
Another intrusion comes in the person of Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), an erstwhile musician dumped in the wilderness by his buddies and forced to walk to the ranch. At first it seems as though he might be a dangerous invader, but he’s actually Ingvar’s brother, warmly received by the couple. Initially horrified by their doting on this strange creature, he’s gradually converted to their point of view, taking on the persona of Ada’s loving uncle.
All does not remain well, however. The threat from the nearby mountains, which their loyal dog tries to warn them about, suddenly shatters the couple’s ostensibly idyllic existence.
“Lamb” requires you to swallow its weird premise—and its ultimate “explanation”—without demur, never bothering to attempt to tie everything together in a logical package. It also demands a good deal of patience, waiting until more than a half-hour has passed before revealing its secret and then proceeding at a measured pace while leaving room for digressions that, like the ranch’s run-down tractor, sometimes don’t go anywhere. A suggestion that Pétur is coming on to María, for instance, is dropped before it even gets started, and a long sequence of the “family” watching TV is like a divertissement.
But Jóhannsson and editor Agnieszka Glinska use the time to build a moody, vaguely menacing atmosphere that keeps one on edge. Their collaborators play a significant role in this. The spare production design by Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson adds to the feeling of isolation that the locations so effectively captured by cinematographer Eli Arenson naturally convey, and Margrét Einarsdóttir’s costumes enhance the ambience. Equally important are the sound design credited to Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson and the score by Thórarinn Gudnason, which make what one hears as unsettling as the visuals.
The small ensemble cast fit themselves seamlessly into the peculiar narrative. Rapace and Gudnason project an air of quiet normalcy even as María and Ingvar choose to take a strange path, while Haraldsson is more extroverted and blustery, but with a sensitive side. The fourth major character, Ada, is a mixture of child actor, puppetry and CGI, and not always ideally convincing, but here and elsewhere in the film visual effects supervisors Peter Hjorth and Fredrik Nord do a commendable job with what were probably modest means. One also has to applaud the work of the animal wranglers.
The pervasive strangeness of “Lamb” takes some getting used to, but it joins the ranks of modern horror movies willing to take risks and embrace something different from the usual slice-and-dice formula. And it stays with you.