Note: this review doesn’t spoil any plot points outside of what’s in the trailer, but it does talk about some surprising things about the tone, setting, etc. If you want to go in to this film not knowing anything, don’t read any further.
Lamb, the new film from A24, is shocking, eerie, thought-provoking, and yes, even cute. It’s directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and stars Noomi Rapace as a sheep farmer named Maria who, alongside her husband Ingvar, has an unusual discovery one day while birthing lambs in their barn. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the “Lamb” of the title refers to a sheep / human hybrid that they decide to raise as their own child.
In the marketing for Lamb, A24 describes it as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom.” That’s a pretty apt description, but as I was watching the film, the question of genre was constantly on my mind. Is this, in fact, a horror film? I’m sure opinions will differ on that question, but what really caught me by surprise with Lamb was how it subverted those horror expectations.
The opening sequence certainly brings the dread. It’s a mysterious first-person point of view shot, reminiscent of the opening of the original Halloween, in which something happens to a sheep in their barn, but after that the films settles in to being a quiet family drama for much of it’s runtime. “Quiet” is the key word there. The dialogue and the sound design of this film are incredibly minimal, and the camera rarely moves. Between the quiet stillness and the stunning Icelandic scenery, much of this film feels downright tranquil.
The introduction to the lamb of the title is done very gradually. At first we only catch tantalizing glimpses of the child, and it isn’t until well into the film that we see her completely. They name her Ada, and honestly she’s a sight to behold.
It’s key that Ada is kept off-screen for as long as she is, because ultimately one of the most subversive things about this film is that the horror doesn’t come from where you expect. I fully thought that the Lamb herself would be frightening or work somehow as an act of body horror, but on the contrary, Ada is beautiful. Her presence is electric; every second she’s on screen is completely arresting. And as you get to know Ada, you fall in love with her just as her adoptive parents do. She has a personality, she has relationships with the other characters in the film, and as she grows, we see her learn new things. And once you love Ada, then what’s scariest about the film are the things that threaten her and her family.
The question of whether this is horror, or to what degree it is, ends up being the impressive balancing act of the film. I kept feeling a sense of dread without really knowing why, and the peacefulness of the film slowly washed away my nerves and lulled me into a sense of security, though perhaps a false one.
There’s a moment early on in which the couple is watching TV while bottle-feeding young Ada, and Maria asks Ingvar about some detail of their TV show. He replies, “I don’t know, something about folk tales, I think.” That clues us in to the nature of this story— it’s a fable. In some ways it’s like a really weird riff on The Ugly Duckling. It’s a cautionary tale about how different types of people relate to nature, and it also poses some interesting questions about identity. In a weird way, you could also read it as an adoption story— I would love to hear an adoption advocate talk about this movie.
Lamb is a film that can be interpreted a number of different ways, and that’s its biggest strength. I personally found myself really appreciating nature and animals after watching this, which I definitely didn’t expect from this film. The end of the story is also very strong and leaves you with a memorable conclusion. Lamb achieves a very unique tone that worked to draw me deeply in to the world of the film, and the subject matter is refreshingly odd in a way that I think will surprise a lot of viewers.
Lamb is now playing in theaters.