Let me preface this review by saying this: Lamb is not a horror movie. Not by traditional means, anyway. Sure, there are horrific things that happen, but as a whole, co-writer/director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s story feels more akin to a modern-day fairy tale than anything else, so I just want to make sure people’s expectations are tempered heading into the film.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s go ahead and dig into Lamb properly. Jóhannsson’s feature film debut stars Noomi Rapace and Himir Snær Guðnason as Maria and Ingvar, a couple living out their days quietly on a remote farm in the Icelandic wilderness. There is an inherent sadness between them, as they’ve suffered a great loss, but one day, there’s a miraculous birth that occurs amongst their flock of sheep, prompting Maria and her husband to take in the baby lamb to raise it as part of their family. The trio settles into their new lives as they treat the young lamb like they would their own daughter, so much so that they even give her a name. And while there is a sense of joy that returns to their home as both parents dote upon their new child, a sense of unease lingers about, where it feels like, at any moment, the happiness that they have found could be stripped away from them.
At first, it seems like the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) might be the undoing of their new family, but even Pétur can’t help but fall in love with his new “niece,” and he quickly overcomes any doubts he might have about his brother and sister-in-law’s adopted child. But things do eventually take a surprisingly heartbreaking turn for Maria and Ingvar, and their lives are forever changed by their insistence on taking in this tiny creature and trying to raise it as part of their world.
On paper, the premise of Lamb probably seems so far-fetched and outlandish that it’s almost hard to believe that Jóhannsson’s unusual story could work as well as it does, but the Icelandic filmmaker has created something so beautifully tender yet horrifying at times that I couldn’t help but fall in love with its magic. One of the biggest reasons that Lamb works so well is due to Jóhannsson’s ability to seamlessly fuse together the fable-esque elements of his narrative with the parts of the story that are more dramatically driven, resulting in a truly unique viewing experience for audiences.
Another reason that Lamb is a triumph is due to the incredibly nuanced performances from Rapace and Guðnason, who are the emotional anchors to this otherworldly tale of acceptance, love, and unconventional familial bonds. Their portrayals of Maria and Ingvar in Lamb are so beautifully understated that both actors wholly disappear into their roles here, and Haraldsson’s boisterous performance as the outspoken Pétur provides some great balance against his quieter and more subtle onscreen counterparts.
Visually, Lamb is a total stunner, with Iceland itself making for a captivating backdrop for Jóhannsson’s peculiar script, adding this whole visual layer of otherworldliness that acts as a perfect juxtaposition against the film’s natural elements. Jóhannsson’s experiences in the world of special effects have served him well, too, as the titular character at the center of Lamb looks incredible and feels like an authentic part of this world. Honestly, I loved this little creature so much and probably a huge chunk of my adoration for this film comes from my own personal attachment to the adorable new addition to Maria and Ingvar’s family.
While I think it’s fair to say that Lamb may not be a movie that’s going to win everyone over, I was wholly captivated by the journey that Jóhannsson takes us on here, and I think that he’s created something extremely special for his first feature film. The emotional beats of Lamb have stuck with me ever since I saw it, and the film stands out as one of the most singular cinematic endeavors of 2021. It’s also worth noting that I think it would pair exceptionally well with Ali Abbasi’s Border, yet another movie that does a superb job of mixing together fantasy-driven folklore with real-world stakes.
Movie Score: 4.5/5
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