Lamb is dubbed as a supernatural horror film but I think it’s accurate to say it’s more a supernaturally creepy and absurd drama. Set on a farm in Iceland, it follows a childless couple who help deliver a hybrid human/sheep baby from one of their ewes and decide to raise it as their own. While I was expecting a lot more from this premise and felt there were some missed opportunities with the story, I nonetheless enjoyed the slow paced film with its beautifully shot scenery and strong performances from its cast.
Surrounded by beautiful, Icelandic landscapes, María (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live a quiet but busy life on their secluded farm. Their herd of sheep have been giving birth to new lambs lately. However, one birth shocks the couple when a part human, part sheep chimera is born. They decide to raise the lamb-child and even name her after their deceased daughter, Ada.
For a while, life is happy for this small and absurd family. But one day, Ingvar’s troublesome brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives to stay for a while and the happy dynamic changes. Pétur seems to be the only normal person who recognizes that the situation isn’t normal, which quickly causes some friction in the household.
But eventually Pétur comes around to the idea of having a half lamb, half human niece and then…not much happens for the rest of the film. Sure, there’s plenty of foreboding that something is going to happen, and some unwanted sexual advances on Pétur’s part towards María. But until the very end of the movie, little actually happens that would warrant having this sheep/human hybrid in the plot. At least the scenery looks nice and you get to see what it’s like living on a secluded farm in the Icelandic countryside.
Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason give engaging performances as a married couple who initially have found a way to move on from the death of their daughter and live life as best they can to then finding a new lease on happiness when Ada comes into their life. While some of the decisions their characters make seem quite questionable at times, Rapace and Guðnason are able to make the absurd premise work and not let the weak story deter them from giving strong and mostly believable performances.
Björn Hlynur Haraldsson also gives a solid performance as Pétur, the outside element coming to disrupt the peaceful lives of María and Ingvar. However, his role is wasted soon after being introduced when he goes from wanting to kill Ada to suddenly accepting her as his niece. So much of his conflict afterwards revolves around his sexual advances towards his brother’s wife which she easily manages to deflect. The stakes never get to the point where he can become a true obstacle or threat which is a pity because he could have really been a catalyst for real conflict if they hadn’t made him flip on his attitude towards Ada.
Lamb is Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature film directorial debut from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sjón. Despite the story ultimately being pretty uneventful considering they have a half sheep, half human creature at his disposal (and something else that I won’t mention to avoid more spoilers), Jóhannsson has done a fantastic job of creating a visually enticing experience with tense atmosphere that builds quite well at first, but then disappears once Pétur accepts Ada as part of the family.
He’s done such a great job at drawing in the audience with the beautiful cinematography, a fantastic location, an interesting story setup along with engaging performances from his cast that the feeling of disappointment is much greater when you realize how pointless most of the journey was. It’s not to say it’s a bad journey as I was totally engaged waiting for the payoff. But once you get that payoff (or lack thereof) and look back at all the foreboding and brooding it took to get there, you feel a little cheated.
It actually feels like Jóhannsson presented two thirds of a story and didn’t get to finish filming the rest or didn’t know what to do from that point on because where the film ends is not the best place to end this story. It needed another chapter.
Lamb is an interesting cinematic experience that I didn’t love, but didn’t hate either. It’s worth seeing in the cinema for the same reason you’d go to the museum to appreciate art. There’s a definite visual and atmospheric experience to be had with this film that can only be experienced on the big screen with surround sound, even if the bizarre premise never lives up to its full potential. If you’re not interested in the art of cinematic atmosphere and prefer a thrilling, scary or stimulating story then you might want to catch this one at home.