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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Lamb (2021)

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

There have been loads of wonderfully strange, visceral films that have come crawling out from their dens this year. Noticeably odd flicks like Annette, Prisoners of the Ghostland, Mandibles, Titane, The Green Knight, John and the Hole, etc. have made 2021 significantly weirder even if I hated and loved some of those titles mentioned. Thankfully, it's not a trend in making them weird for weird-sake as each film from each auteur had significant meaning behind every WTF moment. Debut filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson brings Lamb into the conversation for the best of the best weird works 2021 has to offer, further adding to the ever-growing stack of A24’s catalogue filled with undeniably original works from both established and up and coming auteurs.

Lamb takes place on a sheep farm deep within the untouched, natural beauty of rural Iceland. A childless couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) discover an unnatural newborn one day, eventually deciding to take her in as one of their own.

Like Julia Ducournau's Titane (review over here), Lamb works best going in as blind as possible so it can surprise and upend expectations placed upon curious viewers. Both films had vague trailers and plotlines that hyped film fans everywhere before they stormed Cannes. And although Lamb is nowhere nearly as extreme or abrasive as Titane, it still manages to instill a highly effective atmosphere of dread that slowly builds towards an unsettling finale.

But Lamb shouldn’t be seen as just a companion piece to Titane - even under the consideration that they're two of the oddest, most (potentially) traumatizing horror films of the year brought to you by two of the best studios right now. Lamb belongs in its own little section of the playground, slowly building sandcastles in its own sandbox while the Titanes and Annettes of the schoolyard wreak indescribable havoc in their respective corners. Lamb is a slow-burner that bides its time, carefully internalizing its ideas and themes within its appropriately vast, natural world - allowing for its human and non-human characters a platform for us to understand and condemn their actions in equal measure, regardless of how well-intended they may be.

Despite its potential in becoming a monster film championing body horror themes and aesthetics, Lamb refuses to go down this route. It's also not the kind of film that wants to settle for the mainstream appeal of the jump scare in any of its setups and ideas on hand, nor does it want to shock for shock's sake. Instead, Lamb is a far more nuanced affair that is all about motherhood and mother nature at its core. "Mother" is the keyword here, and all roads eventually lead to her.

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live a quiet life of routine and solitude as they tend to their flock of sheep and toil the fields together. But there is clearly something missing. It can be felt and seen as they try to let the routine of their daily lives mask this inescapable feeling of sadness and emptiness. But once they discover a strange newborn in the barn, there is an immediate understanding between the two of them: Is this the missing piece that could effectively "fix" them? Ingvar's brother Petur asks “What is this?”, Ingvar simply answers “Happiness”. And to them and everyone looking in, it appears that way. It's the first sign of true happiness we have seen from these characters throughout the film, even if it doesn't feel quite right.

Nothing is ever handed to us through straight-forward exposition explaining how everyone is feeling through easy dialogue and voiceovers. Instead, it's smart, insightful character and performance beats that paint bigger portraits of their backstories and where they will inevitably end up. Early in the film, the couple loses Ada (the name they give to the lamb) for a moment. They eventually find her in the field with Ada’s biological mom (you guessed it, a sheep). But as they take Ada back and away from her mother, she follows, which eventually leads to Maria screaming at her to go away. It's a simply written and performed moment, yet it's so powerful and effective in its intention: pitting two of the film's maternal characters in direct conflict with each other. Both appear to be predators to one another as they are willing to fight to the death for their young - a literal battle of man vs nature. Lamb often questions the morals of these characters as we are forced to do the same, imploring us to try to understand Maria and Ingvar's need to nurture despite its damaging effects on both them and their surroundings.

The direction and cinematography play with the grand scope of its environment. Large mountains and rolling fields overwhelm Maria and Ingvar in scale as they’re seemingly overpowered in changing the natural order of things in nature. But they insist on going against the current, even if they don’t quite understand the impending doom that awaits them. And although we are mere drops on a bigger canvas, Jóhannsson keeps things intimate between each human and non-human character as they battle to fine-tune the balance of man and nature.

The cast is very obviously impressive, including the animals, but it’s impossible not to acknowledge just how stunning Noomi Rapace is in Lamb. It’s a performance that demanded the same subtleties of the text in order for us to truly get a feeling for what the film and her character are really about. After all, it’s not just a fantastical horror folk tale. Instead, it’s an intimate story of motherhood and the joys and pains found within. She brings sorrow, rage and desperation into a performance of perfectly calibrated nuance that slots perfectly within a story filled with beauty, heartache and horror.

Lamb is a strange and mysterious journey into mother nature’s unforgiving wrath as well as its instinctive need to nurture. Like other bizarre gems from the year, Lamb avoids strange for strange-sake, making sure that every moment has a purpose in driving home its ideas. It may not be as spectacularly dense and complex as another bizarre 2021 title like Titane, but it is still an eerily harrowing film teeming with thematic intrigue and meaning that reveals itself the longer it sits with you. You’ll never quite look at sheep the same way again.

Where you can watch it: Now in theatres and most VOD platforms (USA), In theatres 10 December (UK), Now in theatres (Australia), Streaming on Mubi 25 February 2022 (Worldwide)

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