How many Icelandic films have you watched? I haven’t seen that many, and it’s kinda my job. I can’t say what Icelandic cinema is or isn’t, though it has produced Baltasar Kormákur’s action thrillers (The Sea), dark comedies about going insane from isolation (Rams), and one deeply moving drama about grief and heavy metal music (Metalhead). Now comes the horror film Lamb, although perhaps it’s better to class this as a supernatural thriller. Whatever you want to call it, the movie feels like something from deep within the soul of that nation where life is hardscrabble and everyone is so far removed from everything else. If only it were scarier.
The protagonists are Ingvar and María (Hilmir Snær Guđnason and Noomi Rapace), who farm sheep in the remote countryside. On Christmas in the small hours, something large and heavy-breathing breaks into the barn, and in the spring, one of the ewes births a lamb that’s — how should I put this? — a tad unusual. The farmers bring the lamb into their house, name her Ada, and raise her as their own child. When Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) drops by for a visit, he first sees Ada and takes an inordinately long time to ask, “What the fuck is this?” Ingvar answers, “Happiness.” Meanwhile, the ewe that birthed the lamb gives María some accusatory looks.
Director/co-writer Valdimar Jóhannsson, who worked on special effects for Hollywood fare like Prometheus and Rogue One, makes his debut as a feature writer-director. The movie is beautifully photographed by Eli Arensen, and the landscape of Iceland seems an unremittingly hostile place whether it’s being blasted by winds or blanketed by snow or fog. The solitude takes on an oppressive quality and helps explain why our farmers would seek out human company, even if it isn’t quite human. The opening sequence is unsettling for not showing the intruder and only taking it in through the alarmed reactions of the sheep.
However, Jóhannsson loses control of his signifiers as he reveals his cards. The film aims to be some combination of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (about the dangers of raising a nonhuman as if it were a human) and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (about why we deem some animals as friends and others as food), and it’s not as well-thought-out as either. Ingvar and María have had at least one child who died, and the pathos of that never quite hits home. When Ada’s biological father shows up at the end, his appearance isn’t effectively built up to, generating more WTF than scares. This film is from A24 Studios, which has garnered a reputation for movies that are more creepy and atmospheric than scary. While there’s nothing wrong with a horror film that goes in that direction, we need a few jolts just to set everything off. This film doesn’t have enough.
Lamb is probably best taken as a blasphemous parody of the Nativity story. Jesus is the lamb of God, after all, and María’s name obviously refers to the Biblical Mary. The twist is that this baby’s father ain’t the heavenly father (or at least we should all hope not — he’s not a nice guy), but that conceptual joke doesn’t land, either. Valdimar Jóhannsson has a good deal of talent behind the camera, and Lamb is worth seeing just so you can tell your friends that you watched a movie from Iceland. Even so, it falls short of what it sets out to do.
Starring Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guđnason. Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson. Written by Valdimar Jóhannsson and Sjón. Rated R.