Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are husband and wife who farm and raise sheep in Iceland. They seem to live a contented life, in the middle of nowhere where half the year the sun is up at night. One day, Maria and Ingvar deliver a lamb from an expecting sheep, look at each other wordlessly, and decide to bring the lamb into their home to raise it themselves.
They pull a crib out of the shed and bring it inside for the lamb to sleep in. The sheep who gave birth to the lamb stands outside their bedroom window, bleating through the night, but Maria and Ingvar are adamant about raising the lamb as their own.
To reveal too much more about Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb would not be appropriate, considering the surprises and shocks the film has in store. Anyone familiar with the genre releases of film studio A24 (Midsommar, The Lighthouse, The Green Knight) probably understands that Lamb is not your typical horror film.
I even hesitate to call it a horror film; while Lamb has some disturbing elements, there are strong moments of humor as well, especially when Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) joins them and has… questions. Maria and Ingvar are determined to raise the lamb, whom they call Ada, without any interference.
This is Valdimar Jóhannsson’s first film, but it is directed with confidence and skill. The audience may wonder how they are supposed to react to the film’s twists and turns, especially since Lamb bounces from disturbing imagery to deadpan humor and back again.
The film wants to keep you on your toes because we are never sure what we are seeing or why these characters behave the way that they do. Slowly, the film’s revelations come forward, some in subtle, quiet ways and others with abrupt, shocking imagery.
Lamb is very reminiscent of Dave Egger’s The Witch in that way, but while The Witch wants to shock and frighten, Jóhannsson plays with tone and mood, playfully at times and at other times with a disturbing discordance that audiences may not easily shake off.
Without spoiling, some of the makeup and effects work is impressive, and Lamb will probably have many memes dedicated to the strangeness of its images.
Allegory and symbolism fill Lamb to the brim with meaning. On its surface, Lamb could be about the trials of being a parent and how loss informs our decisions, sometimes forcing us to make bad ones. Noomi Rapace does excellent work here, who will fight for her “child” if she has to, but also slowly coming to grips with what she has become and what she has lost.
Hilmir Guðnason’s Ingvar loves his wife very much, commits to her and to Ada, and gives us empathy and resolve. Björn Haraldsson, as Ingvar’s brother Pétur, is the one note of clarity in an increasingly odd and bizarre situation, but he is also a catalyst to explore other facets of Maria and Ingvar’s relationship.
One could watch Lamb as an allegory for parenting, or one could watch Lamb as a disturbing horror film, or even a deadpan comedy. Films like Lamb are difficult to review because I have to write about some of the film’s reveals and pleasures, but I can safely say that you have probably never seen a film quite like it before.
It is committed to its premise and does not want to over-direct an audience on how to feel about what they are seeing. Any reaction is an honest reaction. For myself, I found Lamb funny (maybe the funniest release from A24 yet), disturbing, and horrific, often at the same time.
Valdimar Jóhannsson is not being coy or muddled about what his movie means – the climax pulls no punches, and the images may be difficult to excise once seen. Lamb is a complete experience and best taken in without any hesitation or reluctance. Lamb is meaningful, smart, and well-acted and allows the audience to build their own interpretations.
LAMB REVIEW SCORE: 7.5/10
A24 will release the film in theaters on Friday, October 8, 2021.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.