One clear sign that a group of women are in a cult is if they start singing in unison. Take Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If I just turned on my TV without context and saw them all singing while dumpster diving, I would know that those girls weren’t simply just hanging out. This also goes for The Other Lamb. If I went in blind, I would know there was something much more sinister afoot once all the girls in similar dresses started singing hymns. Following recent films like the former, Midsommar, Mandy, and Charlie Says, to name a few, director Małgorzata Szumowska looks to add another must-watch to the canon of films about cults.
The film follows Selah (Raffey Cassidy), who was born into a cult known as the Flock. The cult is made up of women who are referred to as daughters and mothers. The women are all similarly made up, but with color differentiating their status: daughters wear blue dresses while mothers wear magenta. They are cut off from the modern world and live in a remote forest commune. The leader of the cult is a Christ-like figure known as Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). He’s the only man allowed in the Flock and the women hang on his every word. He preaches daily sermons and the women pray to him and scream like they’re meeting their favorite rocker at a concert. He brainwashes them, making them believe they could never leave his side because the world outside the Flock will destroy them. The set design by Ferdia Murphy emphasizes how these women are trapped. The trees surrounding the camp and the dining hall are shown to have white thread-like material woven together above and around them like a kind of web.
Selah is enamored by Shepherd, maybe even aroused (ignoring the fact that she is, like all the daughters, his own flesh and blood). But, of course, like all cult leaders, Shepherd is far from loving. As the Flock is seated around a table, I can’t help but think of a similar scene in Charlie Says, as both Charles Manson and Shepherd get angry and assert their dominance through abuse. The abuse at the hands of the Flock’s messiah is especially emphasized through Ben Baird’s formidable sound design as women screaming can be heard faintly in the background in the first half of the film. The way this sound is woven into the scenes and Rafaël Leloup and Pawel Mykietyn’s score makes the viewer mistakenly believe that the sound is all in their head.
Soon, county police arrive and tell the Flock that they have to leave their forest dwelling. For the rest of the film, we follow the cult as they travel on foot in search of their new Eden. Before this upheaval, however, Selah meets the outcast, Sarah (Denise Gough). Physically scarred and exiled from the Flock, she becomes the only sane voice in the film. She defied the Shepherd and is viewed as broken and impure. Selah and Sarah form a bond that is mainly rooted in the fact that Sarah once knew Selah’s mother. Selah, believing her mother died in childbirth, is often heard asking Shepherd to tell her stories about her, but he always changes the subject of conversation. Sarah, however, doesn’t hold back and tells her truths that Shepherd wouldn’t want Selah to hear.
Gough’s role is relatively small, but makes the biggest impact. One flaw of the film is the lack of character backstory. We don’t learn much about these characters that aren't solely defined by the fact that they belong to a cult, but with Sarah, we see the struggle for a sense of identity outside of that. She speaks of wanting to chase freedom, but is afraid to leave because the Flock is all she knows. She forgets who she was and even who she is, giving an insight into the entrapment of women who belong to cults. She warns Selah that she could experience the same fate as her once the blood comes. By that she means menstruation. Sarah warns that once Selah does get her period, Shepherd won’t be so sweet on her. Through this, we are provided some discourse on how men view menstruation. They shudder at the thought. It’s seen as almost monstrous, and Shepherd views it as impurity or rot that must be driven out.
Selah is looked at as the purest one, but when she finally gets her period, she begins to fight an internal battle with her puberty. She's overwhelmed with anxieties and nightmares over Shepherd finding out. Our ears are filled with her screams as she begins to experience nightmarish visions. It’s a haunting exploration of adolescence that leads to a rebellion. The visions she has give her insight into the darkness within Shepherd that for so long she was too naive to see. There are some amazing shots and aesthetically ambitious imagery in these moments, many of which involve scenes of Shepherd and Selah starring at each other intensely; their eyes locked on each other like a Western showdown as they wait for the other to flinch so they can draw their gun and fire. When one of the women in the cult dies, tension rises as all the women begin to see Shepherd’s true nature. He’s losing his grip, which leads to many shocking moments in the film’s climax.
Another use of imagery incorporates the literary device “lamb to the slaughter.” This is interesting because another recent release, Swallow, utilized this as well. Both female leads are shot in juxtaposition to images of dead lambs (or in Selah’s case, a lamb getting its throat slit by Shepherd). This device is used to describe an innocent, like a young woman, who is unaware of what dangers lie ahead for her. But in both films, the lamb refuses to be slaughtered, resulting in endings that are hard-hitting and satisfying to different degrees.
Like Gough, Cassidy and Huisman excel as the film’s other main characters. Huisman, while mainly playing to stereotypes, is frightening. And Cassidy, going from playing a school shooting survivor turned popstar in Vox Lux to now a cult survivor proves that she can play a character under any kind of strain. Questions of how the cult began, how the older mothers met the Shepherd, or why the women scream and call Selah impure when she gets her period like they don’t have one themselves are never answered. The Other Lamb is incredibly uncomfortable at times and has predictive divisiveness that feels almost like that of The Nightingale, but director Szumowska and writer C.S. McMullen create an incredibly dark look at coming of age that feels much more real than that depicted in any teen comedy.
Movie Score: 4/5