'Lamb' review: Finally, a cautionary tale about killer sheep
This year's films have conjured within us, the movie-going public, many questions.
"The Green Knight" asked, "Is it wrong to want greatness?"
"Titane" asked, "What does it mean to be a man or a woman?"
"Lamb" asks, "Bro, does that baby have a sheep's head?"
The livestock fantasy-thriller from Icelandic writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson and distributed by acclaimed studio A24 made its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin late last month, with both Jóhannsson and star Noomi Rapace in attendance. It's out in theaters this weekend.
Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason play married farmers who live in solitude on rolling green hills. Theirs is a quiet existence, as gray as the skies above them. The only souls around are animals, mostly sheep that they herd. One day, the couple delivers the baby of an ewe, and after exchanging looks of utter disbelief between each other — the audience does see what's bleating down there for just a bit, which Jóhannsson has some fun with — they take the lamb inside to care for it. And feed it. And swaddle it. And name it, and dress it in snazzy winter clothes, and fill the void in their bleak marriage with it.
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Now, the sheep, see, the sheep don't much care for this. And have you ever seen a sheep mom and a Noomi Rapace mom get into a fight? Boy, let me tell ya neighbor, that there's a real ugly hullaballoo.
A sinister wind braces most frames of the glacially slow "Lamb." Thanks to the movie's geography, Rapace and Gudnason's characters shuffle about in never-ending daylight, the undeniable hygge of wool sweaters and quaint dinners at the kitchen table beset by crackling radios, muddy terrain and an eerie sense that their farm might be purgatory itself.
Like another A24 flick, "Midsommar," this movie knows that vaguely pagan Nordic tableaus are rich for folkloric frights. "Lamb," though, is frustratingly spare in its horror; either that, or the past two years of pandemic life have inured me to the threat posed by homicidal gyro meat. Still, the password to "Lamb" is "mood," of which there's plenty to spare if you don't mind a little patience.
What Jóhannsson does not skimp on, though, is putting the fantastic animal cast of his film on the path to their SAG-AFTRA cards, because no shade to the two lead humans, but the furry supporting players walk away with "Lamb." (Much like, say, a bereft Icelandic farm wife might steal a baby lamb to raise as her own in a perverse imitation of motherhood.)
Featuring the finest hoof-based choreography of 2021, "Lamb" is its most spooky and special when footage of the animals is edited and scored so precisely that their "thoughts" — interior life, emotions, rage, conspiracy — are not even up for debate.
Rapace is genuinely compelling as a woman who, when tempted with relief from her hard existence and unspoken grief, takes the first softness she encounters and runs to lunatic lengths with it. Gudnason carries a sad warmth that's perhaps the most convincing effort in trying to get an audience on board with the whole parenting-a-lamb hoopla.
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It's darkly comic at times and fearlessly strange. You could hazard a guess about the thematic intent of “Lamb”: parenthood lost or gained; the insatiability of grief; and man’s relationship to nature are all swirling about in the rural mist.
Like a lot of folk horror, its more arcane plot points probably don't need explanation. But "Lamb" ultimately causes a bit of a shrug. "What was that all about?" you might ask.
I don't know, but I thought the mutton was nice, at least.
Icelandic with English subtitles
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, sheep
Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Watch: In theaters Friday