‘LAMB’ Review: An Unforgettable, Disquieting Nordic Folklore

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

LAMB

Rated R, 1 hour and 46 minutes

Directed by: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s assured directorial debut LAMB has more than just an outrageous premise. It also contains profundity spinning its captivating story centered on a hapless married couple thrown into extraordinary circumstances when they receive an unexpected delivery. Part dark folkloric fantasy, part harrowing parental drama, it’s a bold work of genius you won’t soon forget.

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live on a remote plot of land in Iceland, seed farming and raising sheep. Their obligation to keep the farm thriving is what fills their days, not so much shared conversation nor a demonstrative need for love. However, their lives are upended upon the arrival of a special delivery from a sheep in their flock: a little faun-like offspring, who’s half-sheep, half-human. Rather than question how this could possibly happen, the pair quickly accept their new roles, raising the lamb-child as their own, naming her Ada. And while they take great care in preserving their peaceful, idyllic existence together, unforeseen threats begin to surface.

Jóhannsson and co-writer Sjón section off the film into three distinct chapters, symbolizing movements in Maria and Ingvar’s relationship dynamic. This makes the narrative feel akin to a Grimm Brothers bedtime story. Frames photographed within frames not only direct our vision to the spooky stuff we can see, but moreso make us fear what’s obscured from our sight. This works as a sly foreshadowing technique, pointing to the lurking danger that this couple will inevitably face as they break the laws of nature by nurturing a lamb-child that’s not theirs.

A distraught mama sheep in LAMB. Courtesy of a24.

The filmmakers also find great success deliberately pacing out Ada’s reveal, not just in terms of her biological makeup, but also how she interacts with humans and the world. We form a bond with Ada, growing to love her as her parents do. We anthropomorphize her and her sheep brethren (all of which have expressive faces and reactions). Tension is found in the underpinnings of each scene, even the happy ones that lull the audience into safety. It’s also fascinating when the outside world – as represented by Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a metaphorical black sheep of the family – encroaches on their carefully crafted lifestyle.

Þórarinn Guðnason’s sparse score utilizes discordant strings to a subtly powerful effect, adding an undercurrent of discomfort and a foreboding sense of dread. Eli Arenson’s finely tuned cinematography augments the picture’s atmospheric weight and deeply emotional overtones. Sound design plays a crucial role, filling in the cracks where there’s little dialogue. Every creak of the house, gale of wind and braying of a sheep (especially that of the birth mama sheep who desperately calls out under her baby’s window in the home) is indelible and haunting. Jóhannsson’s soundscape, with the precision of the characters’ silences, is beautifully unsettling and evocative in nature.

While there is some animal peril featured (a word of warning that a few meet their untimely end), it feeds into genre tropes and directly impacts character arcs. This bleary, bleak tale houses stirring sentiments on parenthood, grief and turmoil. It’s a wonderfully weird, wistful picture propelled by its perfect performances.

Grade: A-

LAMB opens in theaters on October 8.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.