Review of the 2021 film Lamb
The “Lamb” trailer was the first one to throw me for a loop in 2021. It was A24‘s responsibility to provide a compelling, if rather strange, tease for this Nordic folk-horror tale. This weekend sees the release of the film, and based on the trailer, it seems psychedelic. However, in terms of the horror aspect, it’s a little deceiving. In many ways, “Lamb” deviates from tradition, even in terms of the level of gore it attempts to evoke.
‘Lamb’ is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, who worked with dramatist Sjón on the writing. Even before I saw the trailer, I was captivated by the buzz around the film’s presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. “Lamb” is without a doubt one of the most bizarre films of the year 2021. I was hooked from beginning to end, and it’s funny in a dark manner that embraces the ridiculousness of the plot. I loved it.
When “Lamb” opens, we get our first look at one of the film’s most valuable assets: cinematographer Eli Arenson. In the beginning, his camera gently pans across a desolate cold tundra, scaring the local wildlife because of something moving in the icy mist. As a result, only the heavy breathing and crunching of the snow under its feet give any indication of what the lumbering something might be. The film concludes with a shot of a barn filled with shivering sheep. Cut! Just enough is given to whet our appetites before Jóhannsson cleverly closes the situation.
There’s no better way to get a sense of director Jóhannsson’s storytelling style than to see the film’s three sole (but beautiful) performances. This book has very little conversation (especially in the first chapter) and makes good use of music. There’s also the expert sound design of Ingvar Lunderg and Björn Viktorsson, which plays a significant role in setting the tone and creating an air of discomfort throughout the experience.
They run a sheep farm in Iceland, and the barn in question belongs to Maria (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snr Gunason), who live in the area. The farm is as far away as the relationship between Maria and Ingvar is. Between them, there is no animosity or resentment visible. The only thing they’re marching to is the sad beat of their own drums: two emotionally distant individuals. Their limited exchanges have been dominated by farm-related topics. Anything else comes off as clumsy and unnecessary.
There’s a startling difference between this one and the others when a small ewe lamb is born. What’s unusual about this situation? For the most part, Jóhannsson withholds information from us. Instead, he’s totally absorbed in the looks on the faces of the shocked farm couple. Again, the director makes an informed choice that makes us care about Maria and Ingvar while also piqueing our interest and creating suspense.
As soon as Maria feels maternal feelings, she takes the lamb under her wing, much to the chagrin of the bleating newborn’s mother. While waiting for Ingvar to dust out an old crib from the barn, Maria names the lamb Ada, wraps her up in warm blankets, and lets her sleep in a washtub bassinet. A strange thing is going on here, and the audience isn’t the only one who notices. These feelings of unease can be seen in the sheepdog’s observations, as well as the disapproving eyes of the flock’s disapproving sheep.
More complications arise when Ingvar’s absentminded brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) joins up unexpectedly and requests a place to stay. In the first frame, he’s startled by Ada, and his wordless deadpan response is a wonderful example of both good timing and good framing, leading to an out-loud chuckle. Jóhannsson’s middle chapter is filled with this type of subtly dark comedy. However, he never loses his genuineness, which prevents the film from devolving into farce.
You can figure things out on your own. I won’t give anything away. What occurs in the final ten minutes is something you can’t plan for. The finale has yet to make any sense to me, personally. On the one hand, it comes out as undeveloped, jarring, and a little ambiguous. It’s jarring and out of character for a film of this caliber, yet it works. Almost certainly, the emotional reward will touch various people in different ways, and the final photo is both perplexing and affecting in equal measure. Is the end result satisfying? Those are issues that are still bothering me.
This much is obvious if you’ve read everything up to this point — “Lamb” isn’t for everyone. Some will be baffled by its outlandishness, while others who were swayed by the trailer’s more conventional sales pitch may be turned off by its smoldering slow birth. My personal preference is for this methodical approach of careful observation. There is a lot of weight and substance to the story thanks to Jóhannsson’s astute direction, arresting images, and genuine passion from performers (as absurd as it is). Meanwhile, the film’s underlying themes of parenthood, bereavement, and human-animal interdependence frequently jar us from its hypnotic trance. Tomorrow, a limited number of cinemas will launch “Lamb” (October 8th).