Iceland can be a funny place, often unexpectedly, and often with a sharp blade waiting for the right beat to strike on. And only rarely is the blade justified while an unconventional parental study plays out in a pre-industrial wilderness. Only in an A24 film can such an outlandish plot fly, complete with non-human performers stealing the camera. Enter Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb, a wild tale involving animals and the folks who raise them, like their own, as their own, and often to resemble our own. That last one could be the most unsettling, it does not hold back, and the experience is better off for that.
It starts out so innocuously, with a young farming couple playing the game of loneliness, wondering if they’ll raise a child. Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) have settled into a routine with their large stretch of land, raising a flock of sheep. Their buried parental instincts are kicked into overdrive when they develop an unfamiliar connection to a newborn ewe whose mother supposedly died in childbirth. They name her Ada, and from there, it gets weirder. Just a bit too weird to describe in mere words without giving away the gimmick behind it. One involving clever puppetry and digital crafts to maintain seamless imagery.
Jóhannsson, crafting his script alongside notable Icelandic author Sjon, is all in for the ambiance, in his feature debut. Through his perspective, building up to and wrapping around the apparent twist in play, we’re pulled in by a slow-moving examination of the mundane. Conversations about time travel growing in feasibility, agony over soccer, wandering around the wilderness in an oversized tractor, and the resonance of shattered dreams. An idea Ingvar is forced to confront as his ex-rocker, presumed stoner brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) makes an unplanned visit.
Each of these hallmarks makes for multiple pieces of slice-of-life humor, much of it accidental. At least to someone who has no clue about Icelandic cinema, maybe other films of this nature have their reasons to cut thru tension with dark relationship comedy. Gudnason is the champion with that side of the story, his flirts with silence bringing needed introspectiveness. And this while the young lamb remains oblivious to outside factors wanting to bring her back to her proper home. While Petur hasn’t much of an opinion, unless it’s the conspicuous toying with nature’s order, Ingvar is less flexible, unable to look past the morality of this adoption. Both Gudnason and Haraldsson provide dry Nordic gaiety amid their concerns with the arrangement at hand.
Maria remains blind enough to the prospects of a bad idea, refusing to understand the consequences of disrupting whatever universal balance is in play here. Again, therein lies the fairy tale concept, with a formula totally shaken up by Jóhannssen’s methods. Not entirely Grimm-like, but the final minutes do bear some haunting resemblance to one of their tales if it were more Norse than German in influence. Ultimately, it centers back to Rapace, embodying that fractured spirit, mediating between happiness and existential dread.
In her eyes, there’s bliss not experienced beforehand, fulfillment only imaginable in the mind without being fully applied. Rapace sells us too well on that belief, channeling her own experiences as a mother to further heal the cracks in her fictional family. That protectiveness toward her adoptive lamb child is pure, genuine, real, how we’d react to our own kids if they were raised with the faintest hint of adorable, non-Chucky menace.
Jóhannssen takes a certain pride in building a suspenseful family yarn (pun intended) around an otherwise quiet stretch of wilderness. Gripping the steering wheel like a vice through to the last frame, while cinematographer Eli Arenson (Hospitality) guides that vision along, from fog-laden moors to a rustic kitchen with zero disconnect. It is darn near impossible to think like Petur, unafraid to question why a ewe is being treated with the same care as a human newborn. What are the consequences of this newfound happiness? And what mindset of insanity could allow for such solace to appear normal? Lamb recognizes the weight of those questions, doing its best to answer them, though the closure may be best left to your own interpretation. I found it’s just better to leave it a wavering mystery, those final moments emphasizing the tale’s indignant uncertainty.
Frustrating, yes. On brand, yes. Humorous? No idea how, but sure. An engulfing piece of supernatural thriller/horror that had me swiveling in my chair, aching for a second look? Somehow, rightfully, yes. Lamb does all this, and after the gear’s been set to max, it will not stop, and it will only continue to darken. Prepare accordingly. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Lamb opens in select theaters covering Seattle and outlying areas October 8; rated R for some bloody violent images and sexuality/nudity; 107 minutes.