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Our relationship with animals has probably changed more in the past two decades than it has in the prior two centuries. The movement to abstain from eating them is stronger than ever; lawsuits that argue for the personhood of nonhuman animals are moving through the courts; and whereas once dogs and cats lived entirely outdoors, people now treat their companion animals like children. But have we considered the full impact of this dramatic shift? If we blur the line between human and beast, can we maintain control of that relationship? What happens when we take it too far? These are the questions that swirl through the sparse but engaging narrative of Lamb. It’s set in an expansive Icelandic valley, and the film is open just as wide. In between its arresting setup and its shocking climax, there is room for the mind to play in its fields.
Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) lead a quiet life on their small farm. They raise sheep and goats, and they plant vegetables. They share their meals mostly in silence. There’s love in the house but also unspoken pain. The lack of children is conspicuous—not because all married couples must have children, but because we can feel and hear their absence. One day a lamb is born on the farm who is somehow different. Maria brings him into the house, swaddles him in a blanket, and rocks him to sleep. She puts him in a crib in their room. Ingvar understands this one is different from the rest and doesn’t object. This, we take it, is love.
There are surprising mythic elements at play in Lamb that only a sadist would spoil, but let’s just say the tone achieved by first-time feature director Valdimar Jóhannsson places Lamb in the realm of ancient folklore. The story is set out of time with few markers of the modern world. The aching score recalls creaking floorboards and wind chimes. Then there are the strange animal noises that spook the livestock and the family dog, leading to one of my favorite, oft-repeated lines in cinema: “What’s gotten into you, boy?” Whenever you hear those words, you know something freaky is about to happen, and while there is an eventual gnarly payoff, Lamb is more interested in setting a mood than offering cheap thrills. It’s the sort of film that feels like horror but somehow stays just outside the genre.
If you don’t buy the mood, however, then the film won’t work for you, and Lamb doesn’t always make that easy. The characters swoon with passion for each other and affection for their new progeny, but the filmmakers add a cool layer of detachment over it that Yorgos Lanthimos or even Stanley Kubrick would admire. It’s a bold choice, but it creates a sense of consistent unease, and you might find yourself yearning for something to reconcile the competing moods. We think this might come with the arrival on the farm of Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), an old friend who shows up for a visit and seems aghast at the prospect of sharing a dining table with a furbearer in a high chair. Lamb mines this situation for a few cathartic laughs—finally, we see our own confused stare represented on screen—but it seems unsure of what else to do with the character. It hints at a past relationship between him and Maria but never explores it, and the subplot simply peters out.
Throughout Lamb, you sense that the filmmakers have a profound opposition to didacticism, manufactured tension, or even the contours of traditional drama. Like most great folktales, it teases a lesson or some sort of guidance for how to move through a complicated world, but it holds back its judgment at the last minute, instead letting the audience chew on its hearty ideas without worrying if they’re too tough to swallow.
Lamb opens in theaters this Friday.