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The Other Lamb, an artsy new thriller from Polish filmmaker Małgorzata Szumowska, depicts the sort of insulated, patriarchal cult community that will be familiar to watchers of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Along with screenwriter C.S. McMullen, Szumowska avoids lurid details in favor of impressionistic, gnawing horror. Her film blends reality and fantasy, and the sparse dialogue leaves the story open to interpretation. By drawing from several styles and influences, the result is more slipshod than devastating.
Based on the costumes, the commune in The Other Lamb might as well exist 200 years in the past. The women and girls wear modest dresses down to their ankles, and the singular man in this cult (Michiel Huisman) wears similarly conservative attire. He has several wives and daughters, all of whom adore him. His sermonizing does not have substance—it is mostly boilerplate rhetoric about grace and salvation—but the subtext is all about making these women and girls dependent on him. He is the only one who is allowed to tell stories, for example, and thus all learning flows through him.
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Two members of Shepherd’s “flock” stand out above the rest. The first is Selah (Raffey Cassidy), the daughter of one of his first wives. The other is Sarah (Denise Gough), a disgraced wife who lives in quasi-exile and who everyone refers to as a “broken thing.” Shepherd is drawn to them because they are intensely devout, although intelligent enough to question what is happening around them. They present more of a challenge than the other women and girls, who are generally demure and frightened. These strange dynamics are put to the test when a police officer tells Shepherd he must move his commune elsewhere. The subsequent journey is a potent metaphor, as the characters resemble puritan American settlers, and Shepherd’s eventual use of violence creates a gnawing sense of unrest.
The Other Lamb is ostensibly a horror film—some scenes are quite graphic and disturbing—except Szumowska deliberately avoids the usual genre trappings. What interests her are how these women think and feel: There are plenty of daydream sequences, such as when Selah imagines herself as a high school cheerleader. McMullen’s script denies any of these characters a backstory, so their immediate present is the only prism through which we can understand them. At one point, Shepherd describes Selah as his most devoted follower, her thoughtfulness meaning her devotion comes from a deeper place. Yet, this same quality is what causes her to question why she even follows him in the first place.
A hermetically sealed world, coupled with a simple plot, means Szumowska must find thematic depth through her prowess as a filmmaker. The film’s title is not just a metaphor; there are actual lambs throughout The Other Lamb, and their impenetrable stares suggest that these women must also have secret thoughts they dare not share. Szumowska effectively blurs the line between text and subtext until they are one and the same. Canny genre devotees may find themselves restless, or bored.
One repeated image is Shepherd with his fingers in the mouths of these women. It is another metaphor, but The Other Lamb ultimately suggests a simpler reason why he does this—he has a fetish for making women gag. That blunt, withering observation is necessary in a film where all the characters speak with holier than thou rhetoric. It is not enough to recommend the film, unfortunately, and there are moments where The Other Lamb rings as hollow as Shepherd’s lofty platitudes.
The Other Lamb releases Friday to video on demand.
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