Is it just me or does there seem to be a resurgence of cult-related movies? Last year alone we got Ari Aster’s sophomore effort “Midsommar”, the so-so Netflix thriller “The Silence”, and even “Doctor Sleep”, the much-anticipated sequel to “The Shining”. Obviously some of these deal more directly with cults than others, but the timing of this rekindled interest is kinda fascinating.
The latest cult movie entry is “The Other Lamb” and it’s pretty easy to find its modern day inspiration. Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska and screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen have made what is essentially a feminist parable set against patriarchal repression. It’s an moody mix of “Midsommar” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” built around arresting visuals and a persistent, slow-boiling sense of unease.
As the movie begins the unnamed sect is well established and its rituals fully ingrained within its membership. We get little in terms of background, either personal or religious. We see they live in the forest, isolated from modern society – twenty or so women with the same braided hair style wearing ankle-length dresses that only differ in color, red for the “wives” and blue for the “daughters”. They’re led by a suave, charismatic charlatan who they call the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). His “flock” soaks up his every word with starry-eyed awe while constantly seeking to win his favor.
Like a snake oil salesman with fresh new tonic, the Shepherd peddles his vision of a “new Eden” to his adoring followers. But one lamb in his flock begins to question her blind obedience. At first Selah (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a dedicated disciple looking forward to the day when the Shepherd will extend to her his self-satisfying “grace”. But when he’s forced to lead the flock on a long, arduous journey to find a new home, Selah begins noticing the cracks in his infallibility.
“The Other Lamb” quickly evolves into a young woman’s coming-of-age awakening. Selah’s disenchantment intensifies as she grows closer to Sarah (Denise Gough), a “wife” ostracized within the community. Sarah’s wise to the Shepherd’s shenanigans which has put her on the outs with the group. “His attention is like the sun” she explains. “Bright and glorious at first, but then it just burns.” When Selah inquires about the lack of males among them, Sarah chillingly states “Only one ram in the flock child.”
There really isn’t much else to it. The lack of depth in the characters is mirrored in the story. But what the movie lacks in narrative it makes up for in tone and in its ability to build a steady sense of dread. Szumowska’s mood is immediately unsettling and for the rest of the way we’re never given a reason to believe things will turn out well. From the outset we know something’s not right. Whether it’s the Shepherd’s pharisaical fervor that always leads to his own gratification. Or the “broken” women clearly exploited and brainwashed into subservience.
“The Other Lamb” certainly isn’t subtle with its message. You can’t mistake it for anything other than a metaphor for abusive relationships and their punishing effects. But while it might be obvious, that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. There is a potency especially in the visual language used by Szumowska and her DP Michał Englert. All that’s lacking is the character depth to help us know these people better. It’s the one missing ingredient that could have enriched the movie as well as our experience with it. Still, there is more than enough creative grit to make it worth your time and Raffey Cassidy is a young actress to keep your eye on.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS