‘Lamb’ is the sweetest, most emotional horror movie nightmare you’ve ever seen
You know something is wrong Lamb, the weird, unsettling, soon-to-be-your-cult-movie-of-choice straight out of Iceland, from the moment you see the look. It is a look exchanged between a husband (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and a wife (Prometheus‘Noomi Rapace). We’ve seen them go about their day-to-day business on their isolated farm, quietly tending to their flock of sheep, plowing the soil, exchanging jokes and what seems like the coldest of comforts. A heaviness weighs on the couple; an empty nursery points to something too tragic to talk about. One winter evening, while they are assisting a sheep at the birth of its lambs, the last young of the animal catch their attention. The low, silent sound it makes suggests it is the litter’s runt. Considering the weather outside, the poor probably won’t be spending the night.
And that’s when the gaze happens. The two appear confused, worried, but somehow awakened from sleep. There is a distinct change in their dynamics. They wrap the little creature in a blanket, take it into the house, and the woman feeds it with a bottle. Later, we see her swaddling the lamb, cradling him in her arms as she circles, whispering a lullaby in his ear and lulling him to sleep. A viewer, at this point, is likely to wonder what exactly is going on. Why are they so attached to this lamb? Why are they treating him like a baby? What’s going on with the sheep standing in front of their door, bleating in anger at them, giving them the stinking eye of cattle?
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Director Valdimar Jóhannsson plays with us, keeping things cryptic, dropping tiny bits of information here and there, just enough to keep people half a step behind it all. Eventually, he pulls the curtain down so that we get a better picture of what’s going on – how his first feature film sort of gets a hundred times scarier and a thousand times more poignant. It’s a horror movie, of course, and with a particularly disturbing visual in the center. (Warm congratulations to the VFX team who worked on this.) No matter how many times it repeats itself or varies slightly, this image remains the key to what makes Lamb tick, as well as what makes it so emotional. What seemed like an unusual metaphor for how parenthood taps into an inherent need to nurture suddenly departs from Grimms’ fairytale territory. It is the sweetest, most touching waking nightmare you have ever experienced.
This does not mean that the rest of the elements – the other ingredients of Lambstew – are not wonderful (Rapace is particularly relevant, even when the story dives headlong into the weird, then the strangest), or that they do not contribute to the exact combination of tender and disturbing Jóhannsson is chasing . Another person eventually joins this trio, a shady hipster in a leather jacket (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who turns out to be the husband’s brother. He first appears to be a potential threat to the couple’s new paradise, then perhaps an ally, and finally someone who, along with his fellow human beings, may have to answer for what happened. To say more would in itself be a crime. It’s a movie that demands that you experience it on its own terms. But it should be mentioned that Lamb reminds us that it is not pleasant to have fun with Mother Nature. This matriarchal force has a way of pushing back, strong.
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