The only right length to tell a story is the length required to tell it completely. This is why a story can be constructed with as few as three words or as much as a 90-minute or more screenplay. It takes someone in control of their craft to be able to know exactly how long they need, offering no more or less than necessary to get the audience where they want. This is how writer/director Sinéad O’Loughlin’s short film Lamb feels, an absolute horror show captured in a single chamber of a home. Though it could easily be drawn out into a feature production, O’Loughlin’s thriller packs so much punch in its 15-minute runtime that you’ll be satisfied as the creeping terror takes you over all the way to the final frame.
It’s a regular morning and Sarah (Aoife Duffin) is moving about her kitchen making breakfast for herself and daughter Lucy (Evie O’Sullivan/Faye O’Sullivan). Things take a turn for the chilling when she turns around to discover a strange man (Éanna Hardwicke) in her home. So begins a battle of wits as this fiery-tempered enigmatic man desires to play house and Sarah must figure out how to separate Lucy from his presence without drawing his ire or fury.
Leaving a screening for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania recently, I overheard someone express that the film should’ve explained the title of the film more clearly. I could only shake my head because the bulk of the sci-fi adventure takes place in the quantum realm and it’s quite manic, ergo, “quantumania.” (That and the words Ant-Man are disguised within the title, something that a title card makes quite clear.) In that moment, I wondered if the art of subtle storytelling is lost, with audiences desiring only stories which spell everything out, requiring nothing of the audience to examine or consider. Then I watch O’Loughlin’s Lamb and all concern for audiences went out of my mind as her tale is not for the popcorn and candy crowd, it’s for the more attentive, the people who want a film that straps them in and won’t let go, requiring that they parse through the unspoken, the unseen, in order to appreciate the story and the storyteller. This is what Lamb is, a film in which the audience is thrust into a situation, like Sarah, given even less information than her, continually on the outside of the situation despite being right in the center of it all. It’s deliciously disorienting.
To accomplish this, O’Loughlin and cinematographer Daniel Keane (Stray) make sure that the opening few minutes capture the ordinariness of the day and the space. One doesn’t consider the significance of the little things — how Sarah bustles about, the positioning of the camera to show geography inside the kitchen, the direction from which we see Sarah open the kitchen door to the outside — until much later when danger crosses her threshold. The intelligence at work in the beginning pays dividends later, the camera working in tight close-ups while maintaining a sense of distance and intimacy, using the horrific realization that Sarah is both close to yet too far away from Lucy to protect her by virtue of the kitchen table and the man’s seat. As a parent of two, the number of times something simple and avoidable has happened just outside of arm’s reach, requiring a strange EQ to develop in order to keep the one just outside the toddler phase from doing something dangerously clever and hurting himself, his older sibling, or anyone else. Especially by staging everything within the home, a place intended to be a controlled space, a safe environment, that it gets violated by initial politeness and quiet intensity from an inexplicable figure just makes the disquiet in the script all the more uncomfortable.
The film is largely a two-hander between Duffin and Hardwicke, with Lucy being heard when not on-screen and not at an age when she can do much to influence the plot. Of course, even the soft noises of Lucy radiating from the sides is enough to provoke anxiety (though I am a parent, so that just may be specific to me), so one never forgets that she’s present. Duffin has the unenviable task of being the audience surrogate, a position she handles with aplomb. Thanks to a great deal of mid-range and close-up shots, we can see Duffin as Sarah processing, adapting, and doing her best to manage a difficult situation. Duffin conveys internal panic deftly, offering subtle expressions and movements to communicate her outward trepidation while attempting to maintain control. As her on-screen partner, Hardwicke nimbly shifts between an almost unaware and simple outward persona whose true maliciousness comes tearing out at a seconds notice. It’s undeniably terrifying watching the ease at which Hardwicke makes the stranger come alive and his true intentions known. These two performers have so much going on and the script so much empty space that terror comes naturally and the ending is filled to the brim with it.
This is O’Loughlin’s fifth film total and it inspires one to try to track down her other projects to see if Lamb is the result of adaptation and growth or if this is part of a larger group of consistent work. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter so much as Lamb makes one salivate to see what’s next from the creative. Lamb is a calling card of homegrown terror in a single chamber.
Screening during Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to Sinéad O’Loughlin’s official Lamb webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Categories: In Theaters, Reviews
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