Film Review – Lamb
Lamb (2021) requires a giant leap of faith from the audience. Once it reveals its hand and shows what kind of story it is, you are either going to be on board with it or not. Some people may find the absurd premise ridiculous. Others may embrace it for the very same reason and tag along for the ride. I belong somewhere right down the middle. While watching it, I kept asking myself, “Is this meant to be a comedy?” There are numerous moments that are so bizarre and off the wall that I couldn’t help but laugh. The way the narrative is so underplayed and dead-pan serious made it even more funny.
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson (who also cowrote the script with Sjón), we are transported to the vast rolling hills and mountainous regions deep in the heart of Iceland. Married couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) live an isolated life working on their lamb farm. Their day-to-day routine is made up of quiet repetition. Jóhannson (with cinematographer Eli Arenson) follows Maria and Ingvar as they get up, feed and clean up after their livestock, then sit down for a meal with inconsequential conversation. This is a couple whose relationship has been defined by their monotony. The fact that they live in such a widespread, desolate location only works to amplify that feeling.
Right from the beginning, Jóhannsson structures the narrative with an underlying dread. Shots of lambs standing like statues, staring straight at the camera gives an unsettling effect. There is trepidation that something is wrong. As heavy fog rolls in, there is a growing tension that hints toward something sinister. This only gets stronger with the birth of a lamb in Maria and Ingvar’s barn. What should have been a normal event that they’ve witnessed before is different this time. Inexplicably, instead of treating it like any other lamb, the two pick it up, wrap it in blankets, and take it into their home as if it were their own child.
That’s right, Maria and Ingvar take the lamb like their own baby, even naming it “Ada.” And this is where the production asks us to take that leap of faith. The idea of two grown adults treating an animal like a human child is so wacky that some people will immediately check out. It’s one thing to love an animal, but it’s a whole different thing to treat it as if it were your offspring. We learn that Maria and Ingvar suffered tragedies in their past, which works as a possible explanation for their actions. But still, this is weird. The entire narrative is flipped upside down. Jóhannsson challenges us to come along – even just to see how far he goes with it. At first, he takes special care of masking Ada from full view – having “her” covered in clothing or tucked in Maria and Ingvar’s arms. The longer we are with them the more of Ada he reveals.
Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Gudnason deserve a lot of credit for playing their characters as straight as they possibly could. Lesser actors would play the roles with a knowing wink – Rapace and Gudnason do not. Their unironic performances are suited for a family drama, the only major difference is that the child is “not human.” You can see how this can be funny, right? When Ingvar’s brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) visits them for a short stay, his honest reaction is hilarious. He is obviously in conflict with the situation. Should he stop them from breaking the laws of nature, or should he let them have this small piece of happiness? The relationship Pétur has with both Maria and Ingvar ends up being one of the weaker links of the film. How the three’s connection grows or deteriorates felt forced and melodramatic.
I’ve intentionally tried to remain vague in this review, because Jóhannsson delivers a few shocking surprises throughout. For such a quiet, steady approach, the material does explore some violent and unnatural arenas, almost to the point of a dark fantasy. When the credits rolled, I can’t say that I was fully convinced of where things ended up. Even though the twists got bigger, I became less convinced after each one. It got so over the top that I kind of shook my head and chuckled at the whole thing. Jóhannsson made his film so nuts that it almost plays as a parody of these serious, off-beat dramas. He takes themes of family, parentage, loss, and grief and frames them in such a unique fashion that I’m still not sure what to think.
I will say this: Anyone who sees Lamb will likely not forget it anytime soon. It has such a distinct identity and assured style that it’s worth watching just to see the audacity of it. At a certain point, audiences will think to themselves, “Oh no, we’re not going there!” to which the film will reply, “Oh yes, we are!”