No other 2021 movie trailer threw me for a loop quite like the one for “Lamb”. Independent film distributor extraordinaire A24 did their job in delivering a fascinating albeit trippy tease for this Nordic folk-horror tale. The movie premieres this weekend and the trailer certainly had the trippy part right. But it’s a little misleading when it comes to the horror element. “Lamb” is a far cry from conventional and the horror it’s going for is far more subdued.
“Lamb” is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson working from a script he wrote with poet, novelist and playwright Sjón. The film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the first reactions intrigued me far more than the trailer. “Lamb” is unquestionably one of the weirdest movies of 2021. It’s also captivating from start to finish, beguiling and unsettling, and at times darkly funny in a way that fully embraces the absurdity that’s built into the story.
“Lamb” kicks off with a scene that introduces us to one of the film’s biggest assets – DP Eli Arenson. In the opening, his camera slowly eases across a stark snowy tundra where something moving in the icy mist has spooked the local animals. Arenson shoots the sequence from the lumbering something’s point-of-view and the only hint of what it may be is found in its deep heavy breathing and the crunch of the snow under its feet. The camera ends at a barn full of rattled sheep. Cut! Jóhannsson smartly ends the scene, giving us just enough to wet our appetites.
That gives you a good sense of Jóhannsson’s approach to storytelling – patient, methodical, and as reliant on the gaze of Arenson’s camera as the three lone (yet sublime) performances. The dialogue is sparse at times (particularly in the first of the three chapters) and the use of music is strategic. And then there’s Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson’s crafty sound design which plays a big part in developing mood and instilling a lingering sense of unease.
The above mentioned barn belongs to Maria (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), owners of a sheep farm nestled in a scenic mountain valley in Iceland. The farm is as distant and remote as Maria and Ingvar’s relationship. There are no signs of enmity or bitterness between them. They’re just two emotionally withdrawn souls marching to the somber beat of their own drums. Their few conversations consist mostly of farm talk. Attempts at anything else comes across as awkward and frivolous.
But things turn towards the peculiar when a young ewe lamb is born; one alarmingly different than all the others. How is it different? Jóhannsson doesn’t show us, at least not at first. Instead he focuses solely on the farm couple’s astonished expressions. It’s yet another smart directing choice that connects us emotionally with Maria and Ingvar while effectively building our curiosity and anticipation.
Maria’s maternal instincts immediately kick in and she takes the lamb as her own, much to the consternation of the bleating birth mother. Maria names the lamb Ada, wraps her in warm blankets, and let’s her sleep in a washtub bassinet until Ingvar can dust off an old crib from the barn. Something is clearly off with this scenario and the audience members aren’t the only ones who recognize it. The observations of the couple’s sheep dog and house cat as well as the eerie cutting stares of the disapproving sheep convey a similar apprehension.
Things get even more complicated when Ingvar’s deadbeat brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up unannounced needing a place to crash. He is immediately taken aback by Ada and his wordless deadpan first reaction is an instance of both perfect timing and perfect framing resulting in a true laugh-out-loud moment. It’s that kind of subtle dark humor that Jóhannsson sprinkles throughout his middle chapter. Yet he always maintains a straight-faced sincerity that keeps his movie from becoming farce.
I won’t spoil anything, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. What you won’t predict is what happens in the final ten minutes. Myself, I’m still trying to figure out how well the ending works. On one hand, it feels underdeveloped, abrupt, and a bit too ambiguous for its own good. On the other hand, it’s startling, bizarre, and in a sense a perfectly fitting wrap for a movie like this. The emotional payoff is almost certain to hit people differently and the final shot is as puzzling as it is affecting. Does it make for a satisfying finish? I’m still wrestling with that.
If you’ve read everything up to this point, you’ve probably figured this out – “Lamb” won’t be for everyone. Its strangeness alone will confound some while it’s simmering slow born may push away others who bought into the trailer’s more conventional sales pitch. Personally, I gravitate towards this deliberate observational style. Jóhannsson’s keen direction, the striking visuals, and the palpable emotion from the performances carry a lot of weight and ground the story (as absurd as it is). At the same time, themes of parenthood, loss, and human/animal coexistence bubble under the surface, often snapping us out of the film’s intoxicating hypnotic spell. “Lamb” opens in select theaters tomorrow (October 8th).