Sometimes it’s best to state the obvious, so here we go. Valdimar Johannsson’s “Lamb” is not for all tastes. That being said, once you start watching it, it’s hard to look away. Audacious, horrifying and hilarious all at once, the film is a genre-defying feature that straddles and breaks the boundaries of the domestic drama, horror movies, social satire and a bit of folklore. Much of what keeps you watching is the slow reveal of the surprises the movie contains, so writing this review will be a bit of a challenge. I’ll do my best to tread carefully.
Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmer Gudnason) live on a remote farm in Iceland, tilling the land, raising sheep and enjoying the isolation only living in a valley surrounded by mountains can provide. Their existence is a quiet one, lived out in a subdued, rote manner. Their days and nights run together, the sun a constant companion, the couple getting by with nary a thought of moving. However, one day, their domestic arrangement is altered when helping to give birth to a newborn lamb, they notice something … different about this animal, something so odd they begin raising it as a child, bottle feeding it, rocking it to sleep and tucking it into a crib already present in their home.
Johannsson and co-writer Sjon show a great deal of confidence in their material as the story’s big reveal doesn’t occur until after 30 minutes. Credit the engaging performances from the two leads, the tone of mounting dread created by the director and his ability to capture and use key actions of various animals at vital moments. A despondent ewe, a vigilant sheepdog and a curious cat all play key roles, each sensing, sometimes to their detriment, that something is amiss with Maria and Ingvar’s “child,” something the couple realize much too late.
While this is a strange arrangement, as is the mutual sense of delusion shared by the couple, a degree of happiness begins to seep into their lives, the days a bit brighter. Even the arrival of Ingvar’s disbelieving brother, Petur (Bjorn Herraldsson), can’t dampen their mood. This character provides the viewer with a surrogate who voices our own incredulous reaction to all that we’re witnessing, his response to this odd arrangement providing some much-needed levity. However, he also brings a subtle sense of menace as his designs on Maria are less than noble.
I cannot recall seeing a film where I could be repulsed yet laugh uproariously in the same moment, yet “Lamb” managed to elicit this response on more than one occasion. This is made possible by a variety of factors, chief among them the commitment to the material by all involved. Nary a cast member is winking at the audience, all of them passionately committed to delivering this conceit in the most sincere, realistic manner possible. It is to Rapace and Gudnasson’s credit that they keep us hanging on.
Searching for deeper meaning in “Lamb” is, I think, a mistake. It doesn’t manage to quite stick the landing, setting the viewer up to think there is some deep metaphor to uncover after its shocking ending. This is a film meant to get the viewer to react, a parsing of its meaning revealing less than is hoped for. Despite that being the case, it is still one worth watching, if for nothing else so you can say you’ve seen a … well ... you’ll see for yourself.