Lamb is a horror/fantasy/drama. The story concerns Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), two Icelandic farmers. They lost a child years ago, and their lives are now filled with the routine tasks of tending to their field and their flock of sheep. One day, an ewe gives birth to a lamb that is not a lamb. It’s part lamb, part human. Seeing the lamb a second chance at motherhood, Maria takes it from the barn and cares for it as if it were her own baby. The trio become a family, but the unexpected return of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) threatens their happiness. Before long, Maria is forced to confront the tension between her and Pétur, as well as the ramifications of taking the lamb from its birth mother.
First-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is undeniably strange and weird. The story he tells is meditative and pensive, however, one that explores complex themes within a haunting, other-worldly landscape. Through Maria and Ingvar, Jóhannsson forces us to consider two seemingly disparate topics: humanity’s place in the natural world and the lingering effect of tragedy on motherhood. Rapace gives one of her best performances, one that utilizes her unique acting talents to their fullest. If you’re open to unique movie going experiences, Lamb is richly rewarding in unexpected ways. Highly recommended.
Lamb begins ominously. In the dark of night, something unseen approaches a farm in a snowy landscape, its slow, labored breathing sounding almost human. A passel of wild horses in its path bolt as it heads for the barn. The sheep anxiously watch the being enter the barn. Moments later, a ewe walks out from the flock and falls to the ground. What happened to the ewe is not clear. Inside a house nearby, a man and a woman glance at the squall in silence from the kitchen. (Their names are eventually revealed as Ingvar and Maria)
The following morning, the couple go about their chores dispassionately, feeding their flock and plowing the field for potatoes. They are married, but their interactions are muted to the point of solemnity. The movie gradually reveals that Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) have lost a child, a tragedy that has reduced their lives to ones filled with routines and responsibilities. When the two talk to each other, they only discuss what is essential. The reason being that even trite conversation topics like time travel lead Maria back to the death of their child.
Helping the ewes give birth brings Maria a modicum of joy, however. She remarks to Ingvar that their flock is bigger than last year, tacitly recognizing the success of their efforts even though their marital life is in stasis. The dog alerts them to trouble inside the barn, where they find a ewe having difficulty giving birth. Ingvar and Maria assist as always, but the lamb that falls to the ground leaves them dumbstruck.
Taking a step back, when I decided to see Lamb, I only read a brief synopsis of the movie, which did not reveal the nature of the lamb at all. The movie is extremely coy about the nature of the lamb. Other than a fleeting glimpse of an arm, the lamb is shown exclusively from the neck up for an extended period of time after its birth (roughly twenty minutes). During that interval, Maria treats the lamb as a human baby. She takes it indoors, wraps it in a blanket, sings to it and feeds it with a bottle. Ingvar retrieves a crib from the barn so that the lamb can sleep in their room. The lamb’s birth mother is unhappy that her lamb was taken away from her, and she keeps showing up outside the bedroom window, bleating for her baby.
One day, Ingvar leaves the lamb asleep on a couch and goes off to work in the barn. Maria returns home to find the lamb missing. (The lamb now has a human name: Ada.) They frantically search for the lamb, and eventually find it and its birth mother by the river. When Ingvar wraps the lamb with his coat, the lamb’s physical nature is finally revealed: it has a human body. I was not entirely surprised at this revelation, given how the director intentionally concealed the lamb’s body for such a long time. I admit that I had been completely unaware that the movie’s marketing campaign gave this element away. I can’t remember another movie where the actions on behalf of the director and the marketing team are so clearly at odds with each other. In this day and age, a surprise like this would have been immediately revealed on the internet anyway, so I guess there’s no harm in the marketing revealing it up front. This situation is strange nonetheless.
Now that the lamb’s mother is shown to be a threat to Maria’s second chance at having a child, Maria coldly dispatches the ewe. Her act of vengeance coincides with the unexpected return of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). He’s revealed to be a near-do-well type who clearly got on the wrong side of the people who dropped him off at his brother’s farm. (They pulled him from the car’s trunk and angrily tossed him by the side of the road like garbage.)
Pétur’s reaction to seeing Ada the first time is pretty much how anyone would react. (What the…?) Ingvar tells his brother that he’s welcome to stay with them as long as he wishes, but he can’t tell them how to live their lives. Pétur is uncomfortable around Ada, viewing her as an abomination. (Again, clearly understandable.) He considers killing Ada, but decides against it. As the days pass, the four of them act like a family. Ingvar reveals his brother’s former life as a singer in a pop band. (The music video he plays is hilarious and reminded me of Eurovision.)
While Ingvar is fine with having his brother around, Maria is wary of Pétur’s intentions. The two have some sort of history that is never explained. The sexual tension between Maria and Pétur is obvious, and the implication is made that the two had previous a relationship. Was it an affair after Maria married Pétur’s brother? A casual hook-up before? Regardless, Pétur’s advances threaten Maria’s happy home. Lamb contains many surprises, especially how Maria resolves the pending conflict with Pétur. (I won’t spoil it here.)
The ending of Lamb was a complete shocker for me. The movie does vaguely allude to what is coming throughout, but I was completely unprepared for what happened, and to whom. When the credits rolled, I realized that the way things are settled made sense, but I was completely unprepared for the brutal way justice was settled.
Lamb is one of those movies that defies simple categorization. Rotten Tomatoes specifies its genre as Horror, Fantasy, Mystery & Thriller, while IMDB tags it for drama, horror and fantasy. While the movie certainly fits into any (and all) of those categories, I would describe it as a fable that explores two themes: humankind’s relationship to nature and motherhood.
Lamb is an environmental cautionary tale, one where men and women believe that they have dominion over nature, specifically animals. In the beginning, Maria and Ingvar were decent people who were responsible farmers and good shepherds. After the lamb was born, Maria saw it as her second chance at motherhood and claimed it as her own. Unfortunately for Maria, the ewe constantly reminds her that the lamb does not belong to her. When the ewe attempts to return the lamb to the natural world, Maria brutally eliminates her as a rival. For Maria, her illusion of paternity must not be broken, no matter the cost. Ingvar, in his defense, only wants his wife to be happy. He tacitly supports her charade, ignoring the pleas from the ewe and the increasingly agitated behavior of his dog. The consequences the two of them face in the end are devastating but felt completely earned. It was only a matter of time before Maria and Ingvar’s actions incurred nature’s wrath.
Lamb also serves as a meditation on motherhood, particularly after the trauma of losing a child. When the movie begins, Maria lives a productive but joyless life with Ingvar. She fills her days with tasks as a way to avoid discussing their deceased child. She is still devoted to her husband and their shared life together, but their relationship is devoid of passion and intimacy. The two exist, but no longer live. When the lamb arrives, Maria sees it as a second chance at being a mother. She immediately brings the lamb into their house and treats it like a human baby. Maria subsequently ignores the pleas from the ewe to return the lamb to nature, believing that she is entitled to raise it as her own. After the ewe lures the lamb out of the house, Maria coldly and dramatically removes the ewe as a perceived threat to her renewed state of motherhood. Maria’s actions reminded me of women who steal babies from hospital nurseries. They want to be a mother so much they resort to committing a crime to fulfill their wishes.
The movie contains several clear allusions to the Bible. The way the mountains and clouds surround Maria and Ingvar’s farm, effectively excluding it from the rest of the world, reminded me of the Garden of Eden. Maria’s name is a derivation of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Jesus is often referred to as the Lamb of God. Pétur’s return is similar to that of the Prodigal Son.
Aside from these superficial references, the story of Lamb argues against a key assertion made in the Bible: that man has dominion over the animals:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”(Genesis 1:26)
While Lamb never specifically mentions the Bible or God, Maria’s appropriation of the lamb and subsequent murder of its mother can be viewed as being in accordance with traditional Catholic beliefs. The conclusion of the movie, however, clearly refutes Maria’s assertion by having nature exact retribution for her actions. In its way, Lamb is in alignment with the modern environmental movement, which argues against humankind as being the rightful exploiter of natural resources.
Like most people, my introduction to Noomi Rapace was in 2009, when The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels were released. Those movies brought her worldwide recognition and fame, but not a career as a top-tier actress. Hollywood thought that she would make a good action movie heroine and cast her in several big-budget features (Prometheus and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). Unfortunately, she was not a good fit in either of those vehicles and the big studios turned their collective attention elsewhere. Since then, I’ve seen her in the grim Child 44 and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon), both of which better utilized her unique persona.
With her incredibly high cheekbones and threatening glare, Rapace is what I would describe as “fiercely beautiful”. Her guarded persona reminds me of an abused animal, always tentative in its actions. In my small sampling of her career, her characters prefer to keep their distance and stare at you, weighing the risks associated with engaging with you. The coldness she emanates is out of experience, her calculation derived from experience.
Lamb is the first time I’ve seen Rapace deliver a well-rounded character. It’s a showpiece role that both plays to her strengths while letting her explore emotions outside of her comfort zone. (Rapace was an executive producer for the movie.) Rapace’s animalistic approach to acting is an excellent fit for this movie, and I would hope it leads to more roles that match her uniqueness.
First-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson couldn’t have chosen more challenging material for his debut. Lamb is an admittedly weird story, which Jóhannsson fully embraces. However, he also approaches the material respectfully. Jóhannsson gives the proceedings a pensive, meditative air. His deliberate pacing allows us to recognize the strangeness of what is shown while also considering the ramifications of what we see. The things he shows us may be strange and unusual, but they are a means to an end. Like a good surrealist, Jóhannsson presents us with a bizarre dreamscape that forces us to look inside ourselves for answers.
DP Eli Arenson expertly captures the other-worldliness of the Icelandic countryside. I found myself remembering The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, another movie that captured the stunning beauty of this amazingly different part of the world. Arenson also accentuates the secluded aspect of Maria and Ingvar’s existence, surrounded by mountains and rolling clouds. Lamb may be based on Planet Earth, but it feels like another planet altogether.
Lastly, I want to call out the incredible performances by animals in this movie. I don’t know how Jóhannsson did it, but the ewe and the family dog both came off as fully-fledged characters in the movie. The images of the flock thinking and reacting in concert were also amazing. The only other movie I can think of that captured animals as ominously as this one was The VVitch.