Lamb is the latest film by Distributor, A24, known for Oscar-winning films such as Minari, The LightHouse, and many other horror films such as Saint Maud and the Hereditary. At this point, A24 has been synonymous with great-quality indie and horror films. When the trailer for the film was first revealed boasting another classic horror title from A24, fans were reasonably excited to see what was in store with this strange story. Unfortunately, this film has been mismarketed as a Horror-Thriller, when in reality, it’s more of a Drama that features a few moments of “thrill.”
Lamb is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and is his first full feature film. Although it doesn’t fully work for me, I can’t deny that Jóhannsson is very talented in his direction of the film, specifically in how much he’s able to convey through his camerawork. It’s sadly hindered by a weak narrative that is stretched out for far too long.
Lamb is now playing in theaters.
STORY: AN ODD NEW FOLKTALE
Lamb is a strange story that, on paper, sounds eerie and chilling, but never comes that way in execution. Although not the weakest part of the film, the film’s story is certainly underwhelming. It’s a film that revolves around the life of a couple that spends their days tending to the lambs in their barn in rural Iceland. One day, one of the lambs has an unusual birth. The couple is confused by this but decides to take care of the lamb. Meanwhile, an unseen threat is looming on the horizon.
From the premise alone, this story sounds like it has the ingredients of an interesting film. It’s a mystery that focuses on the strange birth of a lamb while also introducing an ominous presence. Unfortunately, while this is the general premise of Lamb, the film never really hits on the mystery and threatening presence that it sets up.
When the mystery lamb is introduced, both Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), the couple, are surprised by the birth. Oddly enough though, they’re not too surprised. They come to accept this odd birth without questioning it. In fact, Ingvar is later asked about this by Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). Pétur very respectfully asks, “What the fuck is this?” to which Ingvar simply responds, “Happiness.” They don’t know what it is. They just accept it, and it partially makes sense later on in the film as to why they do. What Lamb knows very well is that the audience is thinking the exact same thing as Pétur, but won’t ultimately answer this question.
Several story points in the film aren’t answered and for some, that will be quite frustrating. What’s more frustrating though, is what the movie chooses to spend a majority of its runtime on. What does it choose to spend a majority of its runtime on? Well, nothing really. Almost nothing happens during the first half of this film. That doesn’t initially seem to be the case though. Lamb opens up with an ominous wintery scene. Heavy breathing follows the footsteps of whatever is traversing through the snow-covered landscape. Animals are cautious but not entirely scared.
Interestingly, there is something going on here. This scene only takes two or three minutes and then transitions to the everyday life of Maria and Ingvar. From here, we see how these two go about their boring everyday lives. Although it picks up a bit in the second and third acts, nothing really transpires.
Sure there is an ending where things happen, but nothing that really justifies why the film was told the way it was. Tension is never built as the looming threat is seemingly absent for a majority of the film. When something does occur in the film that potentially warrants discussion, there isn’t much to say because it just feels like it’s part of life. The event doesn’t feel like a twist, or a story beat, or something that will have consequences later down the line. It’s not until Lamb wraps up that we realize there was a puzzle we were initially working on when the film started, but then forgot along the way. Most of the puzzle pieces are there, we just never cared for the final image.
CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES: QUIET BUT POWERFUL
For the majority of Lamb, the film focuses on Maria and Ingvar. During the first act of the film, the audience gets an idea of what type of lifestyle these two have. Neither one of them are particularly chatty, and they often communicate solely on facial expressions and gestures. It’s odd at first as this isn’t explained until later, but something that’s immediately evident is the fact that these two seem to just be going through the motions of everyday life without much of a care. It’s almost depressing in a way. Of course, other aspects play into that depressing atmosphere such as the cinematography and the acting.
Rapace and Guðnason do a wonderful job in the film, again, conveying most of their thoughts through their expression. Sadly though, there isn’t really a whole lot to either of their characters. It’s clear the two have a past that the film eludes to throughout the film which sets up why they’re currently living the way they are, but that’s the gist of it really. Some might argue that the two of them also go through an “arc,” but they don’t really. They essentially go from their usual depressing mood to a happier and cherishing one. It’s certainly a change, but nothing that’s really delved into.
This is in part due to how little dialogue there is in the film. It’s certainly not the be-all, end-all as plenty of films manage to create wonderful characters without much dialogue, but Lamb struggles here. While the film relies more on visual storytelling, the visuals it depicts aren’t in service of the characters, but more so the mood and story. Oddly enough though, I still found myself caring for these two characters. The first act really sets up this depressing lifestyle that these two are going through so when they’re finally happy, it’s nice to see.
Apart from Maria and Ingvar, there is also Ingvar’s brother, Pétur. Pétur, unlike Maria and Ingvar, exudes a lot more energy into the film. It’s around the time that he appears in the film that Lamb actually starts to feel more alive. This feels intentional as Pétur is from outside the countryside and momentarily acts as a vehicle for the viewer, questioning why Maria and Ingvar are living the way they are.
PACING AND EDITING: LAGGING BEHIND ITS IDEA
Lamb is a rather slow and uneventful film that’s quite difficult to recommend because of the pacing. Going into it, I knew that it would be a slow burn, but it ended up being much slower than anticipated. As previously stated, the first act shows the everyday life of Maria and Ingvar. There are often shots that linger on mundane activities which serve a purpose but doesn’t warrant so much screentime. The movie is full of shots that spends too much time focusing on a character washing their hand, tending to the field, and more.
The mundane lifestyle the title sells is sold quite effectively ten minutes into the film, but it just keeps continuing. The overall film suffers as a result and looking back at it, it would have done better as a short film rather than a full feature.
Apart from some shots that linger far too long, Lamb’s editing is purposefully cryptic. There are a few moments in the film where a snippet of a flashback or a dream is interwoven into the main narrative. Such an instance was when Ingvar is shown running through this empty and wet terrain. He’s shouting, looking for someone.
What’s bizarre here is how this scene creeps into the main narrative. It comes out of nowhere and it’s only because of its randomness that someone can figure it’s not a scene that is currently happening. It has to be a flashback, or maybe even a dream. There are several moments like this in the film which are done quite well truthfully. It might confuse some people because of how random these scenes are, but they worked for me.
CINEMATOGRAPHY AND SOUND: STUNNING YET MYSTERIOUS
Lamb’s cinematography is easily its strongest aspect. The film takes place in an isolated house in rural Iceland. There is absolutely nothing but mountains in the distance and those mountains are only sometimes visible. That is due to a large amount of fog that surrounds the landscape. It’s often thick, palpable, and suffocating, wonderfully fitting into the film. The landscape itself almost feels like a character.
Although never commented on, you can really feel as though nature is working against them. The film does a wonderful job of really placing the audience in this world as only a handful of people would ever want to live there. It’s isolating and sometimes depressing. The landscapes are often grey and wet. But sometimes it’s full of beautiful lush greens. There are more than a handful of shots where the camera just sits, observing the mountain, or placing various landscapes on display.
The film is predominately quiet, only sometimes interrupted by the various sounds the lambs make during part of the film. Since characters in the film don’t talk very much, many lingering shots are done in a way that makes activities seem dull. If a montage of mundane activities had a soundtrack playing, it would drastically change how someone views the scenes. Lamb doesn’t play with sound that way. It’s as quiet as the characters on purpose. The few moments of thrills that do occur are when the sound starts to pick up but those are short-lived.