James Jay Edwards reviews Lamb, an Icelandic supernatural horror film directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, co-written with Sjón, and starring Noomi Rapace. (A24)
Movies shot in Iceland are almost like tourism commercials. There’s a frigid beauty about the location that just makes people want to visit. But the scenery is not the only striking thing about Lamb, the newest offering from indie darling studio A24.
Lamb is about a married couple named Maria and Ingvar (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace and White Night Wedding’s Hilmir Snær Guðnason) who own and work a farm in rural Iceland. When one of their sheep gives birth, the childless couple brings the lamb into their home and becomes surrogate parents to the animal, treating it like a child and, in the process, filling a hole in their lives that they didn’t realize existed. Or, at least, one that they didn’t want to admit existed.
(Lamb, theatrical release poster, courtesy of A24 Films)
That’s really all that one should know about Lamb before going in. It’s a difficult movie to discuss out of fear of spoiling some great surprises. And, honestly, the movie’s secrets are revealed perfectly by the movie itself, so don’t rob yourself of that. Just go in blind.
But definitely go in. Lamb is one of the oddest movies you’ll ever see, crossing the border into the absurd at times. It even dares to get downright corny, but it does so without ever losing its pretentiousness. It never stops taking itself seriously, and that’s a huge plus for what it is.
(Lamb, courtesy of A24 Films)
“What it is,” however, is a whole other question. Lamb is being billed as a horror movie, and it does have the same slow-burn elements of other A24 arthouse horror flicks like The Witch and Midsommar. But it’s more of a dark folk tale, a twisted fantasy, a crazed fable, or even a black comedy. Lamb is a lot of things but, mostly, it’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed.
Lamb is the debut feature from writer/director Valdimar Jóhannsson, who is mostly known for his special effects and camera work on Icelandic shoots for productions like Game of Thrones, Prometheus, and The Tomorrow War. The script was written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic author Sjón (who also wrote Robert Eggers’ upcoming The Northman), and it follows a basic story, but there are layers. Lots and lots of layers. And it’s all presented in a beautifully stunning visual package. Remember, this was shot in Iceland.
(Lamb, courtesy of A24 Films)
And Jóhannsson runs with those stunning visuals, preferring to let the imagery do the talking instead of the sparse dialogue. When the dialogue does get meaty, Jóhannsson just sets up the camera in a one-take and lets his actors go, still always letting the visuals overpower the conversation. He does give the audience verbal clues throughout, though, mostly delivered through Ingvar’s brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson from The Borgias), who shows up to visit, and, in doing so, asks all of the questions that are on the viewer’s mind (starting off with “what the f*ck is this?”). Some are answered, some are not. But even the answers just pose more questions. That’s the kind of movie Lamb is.
Although its story is more coherent, Lamb draws obvious comparisons to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Both films are metaphors for a bigger message, and that metaphor sometimes comes at the expense of the overall plot. While Lamb is a compelling story, it sometimes seems to force its analogy of humans co-opting nature a bit too heavily. Luckily, the story is strange enough to keep its focus, so it likely won’t be met with as much head-scratching scathe as Mother!, but it will confuse some viewers. And that’s probably the intent.
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Lamb is bound to be misunderstood, but only because it’s such a hard movie to understand. It’s not that it’s complicated, it’s just that it’s so … weird. Jóhannsson has a vision, and one gets the feeling that what winds up onscreen is pretty damn close to that vision. So, if viewers have trouble “getting” it, that’s on them. At least that’s how it is in Valdimar Jóhannsson’s eyes.
Lamb is in theaters now.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.