The crossroads between the human and naturalistic animal world is where Lamb baas and bleeds, and one’s view of adoption certainly gets challenged. It sets itself on a remote farm in the Icelandic tundra that could very well be the center of both a horror film or a children’s fable, and Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut feature is sort of both; in certain ways unexplainable, and in other ways as straightforward as a portrait of domestic put in quiet disarray. If that doesn’t always make for a successful hybrid experiment, at the very least it heralds a serious new talent with classical chops who’s also unafraid of where his ideas can boldly take him.
To discuss this film’s leap into the fantastical is a bit tough, specifically because this is a movie that works knowing about as little as possible. The opening sequence, for example, suggests we’re in for something ominous, as heavy breathing accompanies a slowly pushed camera through a wintry frame and toward a grouping of horses that seem ready to clear a space. Then, at a sheep barn in the night, something gets the attention of its penned inhabitants. One of them falls over. The others look concerned. In the light of the long Icelandic day, we meet sheep farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). They seem like dedicated partners in a hard, isolating operation if not exactly expressive, tender partners in a marriage. But it’s when one certain day arrives, when one of their ewes begins lambing, and the look Maria gives Ingvar after the birth says it all: They’re taking this one inside to raise themselves. Not as a pet, mind you, but as their child, to be swaddled, cribbed, bottle-fed, named (Ada), and — as Maria’s subtly changed demeanor indicates — fiercely protected with an almost primal awareness to the world around her.
While this new addition brings a cautious joy to the household, they aren’t the only ones feeling something; there’s the constant cry of the mother ewe outside the bedroom window where Ada sleeps. It’s the kind of aching, heavy detail — along with how Jóhannsson affords pride of close-up to the other sheep, plus the house dog and cat — that memorably imbues Lamb with an equality of perceived soulfulness across all its depicted creatures. It’s an unusual and bracing dedication to animal sentience for a movie that isn’t animated and anthropomorphized. And the fact that the plaintive vocalizing unnerves Maria signifies that this new breach in the usual human-beast relationship not only isn’t being readily accepted by the deprived birth mom, but also comes with guilt. Even as Ada appears to heal something in this childless couple, this unease also indicates Jóhannsson has us exactly where he wants us: allured and unsettled.
Of course, if you think humans parenting a lamb like one of their own is the fantastical leap referred to earlier, that’s only the half of it. Jóhannsson’s early visual caginess about Ada — first showing only that adorable lamb’s head peeking out from a blanket — is a bit of a tell that there’s more to reveal, not showing a thing till around forty minutes in, when the depiction of Ada then requires a delicate balance of CGI, puppetry, and sheep and child acting. When Ingvar’s has-been rock star brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) makes an unannounced visit and meets Ada for the first time, his bewildered face is so measuredly Scandinavian you may find her as unrealistic as this youngest member of the family does. (Which isn’t a knock on the effects team, who do a commendable job, but rather the set-up’s inherent outlandishness.)
Humor isn’t absent from the proceedings, but Lamb doesn’t treat its supernatural premise like a joke; the Petur sequence, which takes him from disgust to caring, seems intended to acknowledge how any of us might come to view the situation initially, then become swayed by it. But this section is also choppy and struggles with its dramatic scaffolding, as if inserted to stretch a storybook to feature length. When the movie re-focuses on what’s effortlessly foreboding about the scenario Jóhannsson has created, what Rapace and Guðnason seem to feel in their bones, and what cinematographer Eli Arenson renders from the crisply beautiful ruggedness of an unforgiving landscape, Lamb feels back on track as a fractured folktale edging closer to an unforeseen darkness in the natural world. An amalgam in more ways than one, Lamb impressively sustains an assured mood of uncertainty even as it doesn’t fully grab ahold of its dramatic weight.
Lamb is currently playing in Theaters nationwide