PLOT: A childless couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), discover a mysterious newborn on their farm in Iceland. The unexpected prospect of family life initially brings them great but it could lead to ultimately destroying them.
Review: The best way to go into director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is knowing very little about it. When I sat down for my viewing of the film at Beyond Fest, I had only a passing knowledge of its general premise. I intended on watching the trailer but was told it gave away too much so I ultimately avoided it. This proved to be a wise decision because as I watched Lamb’s slow-burn story unfold I was intrigued, mesmerized, unsettled, and in complete awe of what I was seeing. In a lot of ways, this film is hard to review because I don’t want to give away any of its secrets but just know that if you have an affinity for filmmaking you will be awed by many of Jóhannsson’s artistic choices and if you have a respect for storytelling, you pick up on many of the metaphors that Jóhannsson and his co-writer Sjón have put in place to tell its offbeat but ultimately compelling story.
Perhaps knowing that Lamb comes from A24 should let you know that you will be in for the unexpected. A24 has proven to be a hub for film releases that challenge the viewer to step out of their comfort zone and embrace something new. It might be a little strange or off the wall, but it’s almost always a good thing. I saw Lamb a week ago yesterday and I couldn’t sit down to write my review until a day before this went up because I really wanted to fully process everything I watched. Lamb stayed with me for days after it was over as I went over all of its themes and nuances, hoping that I picked up on everything the film was trying to say. The great thing about film and filmmaking is that it’s all open to interpretation and we can all draw our own conclusions about a film’s story. After seeing what others have said about Lamb, it appears most of us are on the same page. Lamb is a modern-day folktale that deals with the joys and pains of parenthood, the concept of nature vs. nurture, and the negative consequences of what happens when we toy with Mother Nature. Once you get over how weird all of this is, you discover something so much deeper, and those willing to give the film a chance will find themselves questioning many of the movie’s themes.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Jóhannsson has crafted a truly beautiful film that features captivating cinematography from Eli Arenson. Lamb’s growing suspense and tension are courtesy of the film’s overall look and atmosphere and Arenson’s work sucks you in immediately. Jóhannsson also does a great job of keeping the film’s tone relatively low-key during the movie’s first two acts. There is an unsettling quietness that permeates throughout most of the movie and it’s a testament to Jóhannsson’s talent that he doesn’t lose the audience here. Everything about the atmosphere he has created is arresting, even when there isn’t much going on. The film’s final act picks up the pace and it does feature some jaw-on-the-floor moments that I won’t ruin here. Most of it is elevated by a haunting score from composer Þórarinn Guðnason that only adds to the growing tension. For most of Lamb’s runtime, you know there is something ominous out there in the distance but none of the film’s production values makes this at all heavy-handed. You get there slowly and gradually and the payoff is worth it.
I was really caught up in what Lamb has to say about parenting. The parents at the center of the story are willing to do just about anything to be happy with their child and nothing is going to take that away from them. It really shines a light on how some parents can become obsessed with their children, almost to the point of ignoring all other duties. This is a very real situation told in a story with unreal circumstances.
Lamb’s performances are wonderfully understated to start and grow in intensity as the film moves along. Noomi Rapace is top-notch as Maria, showcasing the vulnerability of motherhood while also displaying a sense of sadness that it has taken her and her husband so long to achieve this happiness. It’s a very quiet performance until the film’s final act when Rapace lets go of all emotion and presents a raw version of Maria that we only saw bubbling at the service. As her husband, Hilmir Hlynur Gudnason displays a palpable devotion to Maria and his newfound child that proves to be very touching. His portrayal suggests that he’s a bit more laidback than Maria in this situation but his love for his family is always apparent. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson is the only other actor of significance as Pétur, Ingvar’s brother who provides the film with some of its offbeat sense of humor. Most of it has to deal with how he reacts to his brother’s situation with his newfound family but even his role isn’t entirely as it seems. What starts as a character who appears like he doesn’t understand what’s going on, turns into something way more nuanced and complicated. Much like Lamb itself, his role proves to be unexpected.
I do have to stress that Lamb will not be for everyone. This isn’t the kind of film I would recommend to a casual moviegoer but if you are willing to give this movie a chance, just know you will be greeted with a motion picture that will challenge you with its storytelling, capture you with its cinematic beauty, and leave you wanting to discuss everything you just saw with others who took the time to give Lamb a chance.