Despite all intents and purposes, director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is not a horror film. Not in any kind of traditional sense. On the surface, it’s barely unsettling and this is both a benefit and a detriment to its overall reception. The film tackles a horrible situation through the lens of folklore, allowing parental grief to play out both literally and thematically in ways tangible and ethereal. Due to its marketing, Lamb is bound to draw in curiosity, but many may find that the execution is far more like David Cronenberg-meets-Raising Arizona, a combination that makes no sense said out loud unless you’ve witnessed the film. Lamb is atmospheric, tragic, and horrifying only in the sense that there is little pleasant about trying to navigate life in the aftermath of loss. So, temper your expectations and steel yourself for the horrors within as Jóhannsson and co-writer Sjón (Fiskar á Þurru Landi) explore the depths we’ll go to preserve even the faintest sense of our family.
Husband and wife Ingvar and Maria (Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace) live on a remote piece of land where the two can farm, tend to their animals, and generally live isolated from society. They share in the chores, but barely spend time together and, when they do, it’s primarily in silence. Everything changes for them when one of their sheep gives birth to a hybrid: head of a lamb with the majority of the body humanoid. Rather than scream or run, the two immediately take the child in, determined to raise it as their own. This is a choice that seems against the natural order of things and it’s a choice that comes with devastating consequences.
Having had time to think on Lamb, the esoteric works better than the concrete. The film, as we discover, begins on Christmas wherein one of the central couple’s rams is impregnated by a heavy-breathing unseen figure. Soon after, we learn that Rapace’s character is called “Maria,” which is the English form of the name “Mary.” Thus, we’re given Mary and her soon to be lamb which could either be a clever riff on the nursery rhyme or a spin on the biblical story of Joshua Bar Joseph, a.k.a. Jesus of Narareth. It’s more likely that the script is borrowing from the biblical tale, though, if the stories about the original nursery rhyme are true, it could easily be an adaptation of that. (Quick digression: The story goes that in the 1800s a young woman named Mary Elizabeth Sawyer was allowed to nurse a sick lamb which had been abandoned back to health.) What follows within Lamb can easily be read as an amalgamation of both, using them as the jumping off point to explore nature, nurture, and the lengths parents will go to heal their family. The symbolism of these things, frankly, serve as a distraction for everything else, clever though they may be. For despite the general civility of the tale, the lack of frights, jump scares, the overall acceptance of the hybrid lifeform (cute as it is), there remains an undercurrent of dread wafting in the air. To borrow a phrase from Doctor Strange’s (2016) Mordo, “The bill always comes due.”
This is how Lamb hits its stride, making it the kind of tale you’ll lean into from the go. The opening of the film, as mentioned, involved an unseen figure. This entity treks through snow and storm, suggestive of something animal yet cogent. It’s movements purposeful, it’s reason unknown. Similarly, we aren’t told why Ingvar and Maria keep their distance, nor why they barely speak. Jóhannsson isn’t trending into mystery so much are working with inference. Doing so requires the audience to look at both the seen and unseen space of the actors, to absorb and observe closely, to consider what things mean when all we, the audience, have to go on is art design, production design, and sound. This makes Lamb a veritable mystery, which, I’m sad to say, ends with only more questions (but we’ll get to that shortly). The absence of things hangs in the air so greatly that we can’t help but linger on everything that happens before us, continuing a sense of dread and loss well before we understand why we feel that way. Even as the energy of the film changes between the arrival of the little lamb and the seasonal shift to warmer weather, there’s a persistence that there’s something wrong with their lives. To be clear, there’s only one moment where anyone considers that the existence of the hybrid is to be challenged, the rest of the film is spent with a strange collective and unspoken agreement that this is the new normal. Behind that, though, comes the threats of finding out, of discovery, of what it means when nature wants to take back what belongs to it. How do you fight that? How do you defend from that?
The answers, I think, are entirely up for interpretation. Lamb asks the audience to just accept things about the story, yet so much of it is steeped in denial and rage at life’s circumstances. Lamb presents an opportunity of joy and peace, yet wraps it entirely in deception and violence. The whole film contains characters who are lost or in pain, absent any type of bearing to help them make their way. For my interpretation, I see the narrative as not pitting humankind against nature, but as a search for peace and family. We, the audience, are so prone to siding with ourselves in film that I wonder how often people will consider the loss that Maria and Ingvar reaped upon one another. I wonder if they will consider that the loss they hoped to fill via their little lamb created the same in another. What comes from not considering this? In my view, the ending the story deserves is the ending it gets. A word of warning if you’ve not yet seen Lamb, pay close attention to Ingvar’s instructions to his “daughter.” I believe they contain the answers to the ending, enigmatic as is it.
Though wildly off the mark in terms of narrative, the closest another A24 film has come to this level in-your-face challenge is Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). If you paid close attention, the horrific acts that the characters endure as either spectator or participant are laid out for all to see. Like Lamb, it, too, is a story of grief, placing everything before you in near perpetual daylight and requires the audience to make their own conclusions. Jóhannsson’s Lamb is far less overt with its meaning and intention, an aspect which may alienate audiences. But this will make it no less memorable. Thanks to the performances from Rapace and Guðnason, the gorgeous cinematography from Eli Arenson (Hospitality), Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson’s (LazyTown) production design, the sound design from Ingvar Lundberg (Alma) and Björn Viktorsson (Katla), Lamb is a world fully-constructed and wholly believable. As a fairytale, Lamb teaches a lesson on grief. In construction, it feels as real as any day that tragedy strikes. May none of us know the pain that may have inspired such a story as Lamb.
In theaters October 8th, 2021.
For more information, head to A24’s Lamb website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.