A childless couple discover a mysterious newborn on their farm in Iceland.
Along with Blumhouse Productions, A24 has become one of the most prolific and unique distributors of contemporary horror. Since its inception, the independent powerhouse has garnered praise for distributing some of the most distinctive independent movies. Everything from timely biopics like Amy (2015) to Academy Award-winning dramas like Moonlight (2016) allowed A24 to enter the upper echelon of film studios. However, recently they’ve earned a reputation as the makers of deliciously unnerving horrors and innovative psychological thrillers. Features such as Saint Maud (2019) and The Lighthouse (2019) appeal to a range of audiences thanks to their darkly contemplative and unusual concepts, while The Killing of a Sacred Dear (2017) and A Ghost Story (2017) utilised grounded characters with clear humanity to define their stories. Emerging with his feature-length debut, Valdimar Jóhannsson adds another inspired and audacious addition to A24’s list of releases. Premiering at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Lamb / Dyrid successfully combines a cautionary folk tale with a thought-provoking examination of grief.
Set amidst the isolated Icelandic countryside, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a married couple who tirelessly work in tandem on their rural farmland. They live a peaceful existence with their flock of sheep while handling the mundane routines of farm life. Their life is simple but there’s a sadness in their demeanor that suggests this wasn’t always the case. Haunted by indelible loss and grief, Maria and Ingvar spend the majority of their existence together in silence. As their relationship begins to disintegrate, something unexplainable occurs and blesses the fractured couple’s household. While helping one of their ewes give birth, they discover a member of the flock delivers a rather unique creature. After deciding to adopt the baby ovine and raise it as their own, they begin a strangely comforting existence together. However, their idyllic life is disrupted by a mysterious force determined to return the creature to the wilderness that birthed her.
Following her breakout performance in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, actress Noomi Rapace continues to demonstrate her versatility. Lamb is anchored by her incredibly empathetic performance as Maria, as she effortlessly imbues her character with an emotional vulnerability caused by bereavement, while also maintaining confidence and strength. Although her dialogue is sparse, Rapace conveys a wealth of emotional information with just her facial expressions. Her longing gaze communicates the complexities of motherhood, whereas her timid demeanour communicates the frantic uncertainty about her newfound parental responsibilities. She may be defenceless to her emotional trauma, but her fiercely protective motherly instincts will leave audiences simultaneously shocked and captivated as she desperately grasps to hope. It’s a genuinely masterful portrayal of a woman carrying an enormous burden of incomprehensible heartache that’ll continue to resonate once the credits roll.
Having forged a career as a VFX artist for productions including Prometheus (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Lamb is also confident debut from Jóhannsson. Co-written by acclaimed novelist Sjón, the screenplay balances a disturbing folk tale with an agonising meditation on grief and motherhood. Similarly to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Lamb’s methodical pacing and foreboding tone drips with a somber atmosphere and visual intrigue. Jóhannsson continuously misdirects his audience’s attention to allow our imagination to create the horror for him. The prologue begins with a menacing intensity as the beautiful presentation of the vast Icelandic landscapes takes a terrifying turn. Opening with a team of wild horses emerging from the fog, they’re promptly disturbed by something that forces them to retreat in panic. When the ominous threat approaches the farm, the sheep become afraid and unsettled. Soon after the mysterious entity departs, one of the sheep collapses on the floor looking exhausted and ravaged. Jóhannsson’s calculated compositions fill the most unassuming sequences with nauseous unease.
Despite the weather being perpetually bleak, Eli Arenson’s (Hospitality) incredibly soulful cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful. Echoing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Jóhannsson crafts a haunting atmosphere from the desolate Icelandic landscape. The fertile green hillsides and domineering mountains are both equally warm and menacing. Whereas the omnipresent layer of fog enigmatically envelops the area, transforming the farmhouse into something resembling paradise and purgatory. Additionally, Björn Viktorsson’s (The Country) inventive sound design enhances the unflinching outlook of the production. The complex soundscape is raised to an assaultive level as the panicked livestock bleat in the distance. It intelligently heightens the simmering tension developing inside the farmhouse, while also hinting towards an unseen threat in the distance. However, Lamb never truly instills fear into its audience. Jóhannsson refrains from delivering conventional horror thrills and orchestrates an unnerving melodrama of a family wracked with pain and grief.
Although ostensibly a horror with fantasy elements, Lamb is essentially an allegory of the complexities of parental grief and bereavement. Although Maria and Ingvar’s story is never fully conveyed, they’ve seemingly been struck by a tragedy surrounding a child. Lamb’s greatest strengths are with Jóhannsson’s ability to convey a compelling tale with little exposition and even less dialogue. Evoking Hereditary (2017), the sense of grief that permeates the atmosphere sits within the unspoken margins of sparse dialogue. The distant body language between Maria and Ingvar captures the state of their relationship. Whereas the heavy silence that fills the air hints of a pain so excruciating they’re unable to discuss it. A particular sequence authentically captures Maria’s anguish when Ingvar reads a newspaper article about the existence of time travel. As he discusses the possibility of going into the future, Maria stoically suggests going back into the past must also be possible. Although Jóhannsson rarely commits to the explanations surrounding the couple, he effectively conveys their heavy burden with grace and subtlety.
One may wonder how to react to Jóhannsson’s bewildering and jarring portrayal of an unconventional familial life. Beneath the wonderfully foreboding and melancholic atmosphere, Lamb explores the decisions parents are willing to make to preserve their dream of an idyllic life. Similar to Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021), the eponymous animal is a symbol of hope that represents unconditional familial love. Maria and Ingvar’s shocked faces reveal that the lamb is unique, but their relationship and heartbreak is replenished with unbridled joy. With carefully framed and intimate compositions, Jóhannsson declines to show the special gift of nature. The lamb is frequently obscured from the audience as the couple swaddle her like the baby in Eraserhead (1977), dress her in children’s clothes, and treat her as their daughter. However, this methodical approach creates a sense of normalcy as the adorable baby ovine brings levity into the household. This leads to an incredible moment when Ingvar’s brother is first introduced to the child. With the same trepidation as the audience, Peter (Björn Hiynur Haraldsson) asks “what the fuck is this?” As Ingvar optimistically responds “this is happiness”, it’s easy to accept the absurdity of Jóhannsson’s heartwarmingly absurd fable.
Ultimately, Lamb is a unique experience that is equally peculiar and absorbing. Valdimar Jóhannsson directs his stunning debut with such confidence, he effortlessly blends classic Icelandic folklore with a compelling domestic drama. Whereas Noomi Rapace delivers an incredibly expressive performance that aptly captures her character’s emotions with minimal dialogue. Lamb’s outlandish and disquieting originality will likely appeal to many fans of A24’s previous offerings. The enigmatic tone and the oppressive atmosphere are maintained through beautifully haunting visuals. Whereas the methodical pacing moves along with a foreboding pulse, slowly building towards a shocking climax. However, beneath the surface, Jóhannsson examines the trials of parental grief and how bereavement can sometimes force us to make bad decisions. It may not be a frightening horror, but Lamb will haunt audiences in more complex ways for a long time afterwards.
ICELAND | 2021 | 106 MINUTES | 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ICELANDIC
director: Valdimir Jóhannsson.
writers: Valdimir Jóhannsson & Sjón.
starring: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason & Björn Hiynur Haraldsson.