For the third in our unintentional continuing series on International Oscar submissions, we look at Lamb, from Iceland, a film much better than the lame pun I used in the headline. Directed by Valdimar Jóhansson in his feature debut, the movie has all the earmarks of a great, slow burn bit of horror, with just a hint of profundity added in for good measure. Anchored by a remarkable small-scale cast and aided by a keen cinematic eye, the movie strikes an admirable balance of tragedy and spectacle, going for low-key weirdness over outright scares.
Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Maria, who along with her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) runs a small, remote farm raising horses and sheep. A childless couple, the pair’s world is turned upside down when one of their ewes gives birth to something truly unbelievable, a human/sheep hybrid. Most people, in such a situation, would likely respond in any of three ways. One, they’d run away screaming. Two, they’d instantly kill it. Three, Maria would call the cops on Ingvar for suspicion of bestiality. Some combination of those eventualities would be the normal course of action for any of us. But for Maria and Ingvar, there isn’t the slightest hesitation. They take the infant in, name her Ada, and raise her as their own.
In lesser hands, this comes off as silly and gratuitous at best, but Jóhansson spends his first act building to the moment with rarely seen skill. The film opens with animals running through the fog from an approaching offscreen figure that can only grunt and huff. Several of the scenes have the camera at eye level with the herd, keeping things relative to their perspective, daring us in the audience to avoid anthropomorphizing them. When the mother sheep becomes pregnant, she stumbles out of her pen and falls over with a dramatic thud, clueing us in to her unique burden. Through largely silent roles early on, Maria and Ingvar are shown to be empathetic, loving, hard-working, and most importantly, human. The reasons why they keep Ada become apparent later in the film, presenting a lovely allegory about loss that I won’t spoil here, but even in the moment when Ada is born, you can see their human instincts displayed beautifully without a word.
Some time after this, Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) comes by to stay, having been stranded on the side of the road by some younger people he apparently partied with the night before. This is one of the lesser elements of the film, as he’s there purely as an antagonist. At times Haraldsson tries to play the role as if he’s an audience cipher, initially reacting to Ada as any of us would (though in a more subdued, Icelandic/European manner, whereas we in America would probably go full Nic Cage at the sight), but mostly he’s just a device to set up tension that never really pays off. Will he kill his adoptive sheep-niece? Of course not. Will Maria succumb to his repeated sexual advances? Of course not. Will he successfully blackmail Maria about a second act transgression? Of course not.
There’s a slight moment where things look like they might take a turn, but again, it never really materializes because Jóhansson doesn’t want to go down that road, at least I don’t think so. There’s a legitimate mystery as to Ada’s existence, and given that we’re introduced to Pétur as a hungover castoff, maybe just maybe there’s a chance he’s the father, and that his disgust at Ada’s appearance is a stark, visceral reminder of a sin he’d never acknowledge. But honestly, it wouldn’t have worked, because this film succeeds on atmosphere and curiosity, so going in that blatant and obvious of a direction would have been a disservice. I just wish there was something better to do overall with the character.
On the flipside, Rapace and Guðnason give absolutely tremendous performances. Their commitment to the absurdity of the underlying concept is infectious at times, mostly because they play it so straight. Ada is the same as any other child to them, and they parent her as any normal person would, which adds to the fucked up factor, but also lulls us into a false sense of security due to its charm, making the final reveals all the more shocking when they come. It’s a very delicate balance, but one that largely succeeds because they’re so invested in treating this situation as mundanely as possible.
It also helps that the camera and effects teams are well up to the task of making Ada believable. She has all the characteristics of a human toddler, except that she’s got a sheep’s head, along with one of her arms being ovine. But from the moment she’s born, there is an endearing quality to her presentation. Before the full reveal, she’s shown as just a baby sheep, adorably suckling at a milk bottle, equal parts cute and disturbing. A fair amount of puppetry is used along with covers and obfuscating camera tricks to highlight the human and animal sides of her when needed. The only part that’s slightly off is the CGI blending the sheep head with the rest of her body. It’s not a great render in some places, and can seem fake, but I chalk that up to the relatively low budget. If anything, it makes the film feel more real because the seams look so obvious at times, reinforcing how abnormal all of this is, despite the straight play from the cast.
The payoff for all of this isn’t the most satisfying, but it works for what the story intends, and because it’s billed as a horror movie, there has to be a little bit of gore and death to go around. More importantly, though, Jóhansson took his time crafting rigid, eerie atmosphere within this misty mountain farm. Rather than resorting to cheap jump scares and cheesy music stings (there are a couple, but justified within the context of the scene), he sets a mood, makes his characters believable even when faced with the insane, and challenges the audience when it comes to directing their sympathies as the story goes on. This is a very worthy first effort, and I’m glad that Iceland gets to show it off for the Academy.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How would you react to seeing a sheep baby? Does this film suffer due to its lack of “Jaja Ding Dong”? Let me know!
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