lamb

It’s astonishing how easily Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb puts us inside the mind of animals. We listen to and understand them without knowing their tongue or having subtitles. Horses run away from an ominous camera, and we hear them shouting, “Shit, run! Danger approaching!” A sheep delivers a baby, and the surrounding woollybacks seem to be giving their congratulations. A dog calls his owners to gaze at an abnormality as if to say, “Look what is happening here!”

That “abnormality” is a half-human and half-sheep baby. The owners are a married couple named María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). The duo, though, does not consider the baby a hybrid. For them, it’s entirely a human being, prompting them to adopt the child. One of the strengths of Lamb is that we are able to fill in the blanks intuitively. So when the couple embraces the child, you realize they do so either because of a past tragedy (loss of a son/daughter) or loneliness in their life (a sense of longing engulfs the silences María and Ingvar find themselves in). Later, you smell the whiff of a foregone affair when Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother, touches María’s cheek. Over the course of the film, the duo’s greed continues to take a turn toward the horrific. At first, they separate the sheep from its baby. When the mother calls out for her child from outside a window, María and Ingvar shoo the animal away. And when the human mother gets very irked by the sheep mother, she pulls out a gun.

Lamb is a horror movie, but it’s devoid of horror. Jóhannsson with cinematographer Eli Arenson offers an isolated view and a chilling atmosphere, but the design merely reaches your intellect instead of having a visceral effect. The slow burn pace irons the plot, producing clarity. However, it also makes us too comfortable and relaxed, preventing us from eliciting stronger responses. For instance, I admired how the movie maintains suspense by carefully revealing certain things. Rather than immediately telling us why María and Ingvar are shocked by the sheep baby, Lamb shows the child’s lower human body after some scenes. Pétur’s identity is not disclosed immediately. We first see the window of a car, then the driver’s face, followed by the sight of two or three people throwing out a man. This man walks alone in the lonely environment and reaches Ingvar’s house, witnesses a shooting, and makes himself comfortable in the barn. Finally, we find this stranger’s name to be Pétur and how he is related to the central characters in the morning. Evidently, Lamb requires tremendous patience.

But having patience was not the issue. As mentioned, the problem lies with the pacing: it that made me so relaxed that I could not react fervently to the positives. Usually, I would have sat up with wide eyes and applauded the movie for displaying such control instead of rushing. But here, I twisted my lips and dryly murmured, “Nice.” When the evil lurking in Lamb appears on the screen, he fails to terrify. The poor creature is so barely present in the movie that we forget about any supernatural entity or the fact that we are watching a horror movie. One can point out that Lamb is really about María and the family, but they are so remote and far away from our reach that they look like a faint light (I didn’t get to know them very well, and I don’t think the movie was very interested in fully learning about them beyond titchy details. It seems as though the idea of a lamb-human hybrid was where the director’s excitement peaked). The family’s moment of bliss, where everyone dances to one of Pétur’s songs on the VHS, is as warm as ice.

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Jóhannsson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sjón, uses the medium and the genre to expose human rapacity. He lays down his points through Ada, the hybrid baby. Being half-human and half-sheep means that ideally, she should be raised by both humans and sheep. But María and Ingvar are consumed by their own happiness, making them blind to the cries of the jumbuck calling for her lamb. Ada can be seen as a natural resource made for humans and animals alike. But we are so covetous that we steal whatever we like, even going as far as killing other animals to fulfil our needs. This turns Lamb into a karmic tale, where the greedy individual is left with the same pain that they inflicted upon the other for their desire. It sounds interesting during discussions, but the viewing experience is bereft of similar pleasure. No wonder the ending makes you casually remark, “Oh, I see what you did there,” rather than exclaim with excitement, “Wow! That was just fantastic!”

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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