Watching a new horror film often means adding jokingly to a mental list of do’s and don’ts. For instance, upon viewing the new French film Titane, I briefly felt like I should never enter France again because of the pain and violence shown on screen. The same rules apply here, as Lamb is a bleak film that puts any dreams of farming out to pasture. I say these things jokingly but it is a testament to the stories being told.
Young couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live on a farm in Iceland and are silently grieving. Dialogue is sparse and they focus on their work raising sheep and plowing the fields. There is no affection between them and their relationship feels as cold as the winter months they experience. For the first quarter of the film they seem devoid of hobbies and joy. With hardly a home or tree in sight, their sheep, along with a cat and dog, are their only companions. Even the cat seems bored with no birds or squirrels to chase after. That is until a special new lamb is born. We see Maria carry it away from its mother and place it in a crib. As it begins to grow we discover it has a human torso and hands while still retaining the head and signs of being a sheep.
The concept alone is disturbing and weird, and while some may laugh, the laughter likely will be linked to the sort of uncomfortableness director Valdimar Jóhannsson is trying to invoke. We witness two live lamb births happen before our eyes, to include the unique one that Maria takes to the cribr. The lambs actual mother is eventually disposed of and then an uneasy peace begins. Maria and Ingvar reconnect with one another while raising the lamb they’ve named Ada. They are surrounded by rolling hills and mountains and their only visitor is Ingvar’s gruff brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). From Ada’s birth and onward, we are seeing a skewed timeline of life as a family.
My favorite scene is where Pétur tries to feed Ada grass which she naturally accepts until Ingvar pulls her away. It’s a fantastic metaphor for the struggles of parenthood and how they often get tunnel vision when thinking about what is right for their children. Ada can’t simply speak and we feel like she has no say in the matter.
What the film highlights well is the lack of feeling one experiences from a loss and how that can lead to a warped justification for taking from others. There are no jumpscares and the music doesn’t threaten your ear drums, but the uneasiness is palpable. You can tell that nature is its own character and that is horrifying in itself. For an isolated couple surrounded by nature, they've made nature an enemy that is patient and will get what it wants.
Patience is key here. Some won’t be satisfied with a film like this. With so much internalized grief, the couple almost seem devoid of personality for much of the film, but I can’t fault it for accuracy on this front. It’s a game of showing rather than telling and it is shown well. It’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, but it invokes the same uneasiness and sense of doom in one.
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