Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson.
Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
A childless couple, María and Ingvar discover a mysterious newborn on their farm in Iceland. The unexpected prospect of family life brings them much joy, before ultimately destroying them.
As soon as Lamb ended, I immediately watched the trailer just to see how A24 is selling it and how much of the absurd premise is shown off. It’s not uncommon to talk about how a movie is best gone into knowing as little as possible, but given the amount of waiting and teasing going on from first-time feature director Valdimar Jóhannsson (co-writing the story alongside revered Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist Sjón, a frequent collaborator of Björk who is also writing The Northman with Robert Eggers, which explains the atmospheric slow-burn pacing that is also present here), and especially factoring in the impact such a revelation has as a result of taking that time, it doesn’t feel right to talk about what is actually going on here.
As such, Lamb will only be discussed in the vaguest of terms in this review. What can be said is that the narrative centers on distant and fractured couple Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, respectively), running an Icelandic sheep farm. Much of the first act establishes a look at their routine and mundane existence (combined with sweeping photography from Eli Arenson). They barely speak to one another, meaning that minimal dialogue and body language tell the story of a couple hanging on by a thread. There are also many adorable pets ranging from a dog and cat (yes, living together in harmony) who have their own noteworthy reactions to certain behavior and plot developments.
Aside from tending to crops and tractor work, we also see Maria and Ingvar caring for the livestock, occasionally assisting them through giving birth. Without giving away too much of what’s going on (although if you really want to know, the trailer is readily available, spoiling far too much), something unexplainable happens with the birth of the lamb. Weirdly, it could also be the second wind for this failing relationship (as the film goes on, we start to understand what went wrong, with some of it functioning as predictable). Maria and Ingvar begin communicating more as they question nothing and accept what has been given to them.
Next up is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a troubled man with his own rocky past and with enough common sense to see what’s going on in the household is everything from creepy to wrong to awkward to unexplainable insanity. Tonally, Valdimar Jóhannsson presents this as sweet and humorous (it’s impossible not to laugh at what’s happening, and it’s all by design), acknowledging the silliness of the premise while the actors play everything moody and straight (no small task, which makes every performance here a magic trick to take in). For the characters, Lamb is cautionary folk horror. For audiences, it may as well be a dark comedy that could double as a twisted family movie (at least until everything starts to break down in the third act). There’s never a moment you don’t admire what Lamb is doing, even if it never entirely comes together as a fully fleshed-out experience leaving a substantial impression.
A love triangle also emerges between the three central characters that contribute to that aforementioned downfall. The issue with that is it’s rarely affecting, and the characters themselves are not necessarily compelling beyond the basics of why they are fascinated with a specific lamb. Essentially, it’s a story about grieving that Noomi Rapace is working her hardest to make intriguing and balanced alongside the ludicrous premise with grounded humanity. Again, it’s not the most straightforward task. If anything, she does pull it off.
Accounting for so much of its running time Lamb takes before it really starts to get weirdly interesting, it’s also a bummer that the resolution also doesn’t amount to much beyond a simple “what comes around, goes around” message cementing that these characters, in the pursuit of their own happiness, made the wrong decision. None of that takes away from the excellent practical effects on hand. Still, given how distant and cold the film primarily is, it’s hard to have an emotional response, especially considering the simplicity of the themes. Nevertheless, Valdimar Jóhannsson is almost certainly going to be a filmmaker to watch in the future; his ideas are assuredly off-the-wall, and with fine-tuning of his craft, his future works have a chance to become something exceptional.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com