What do we mean when we talk about the “natural order” of things? You may love your pet, but your pet is not your child, and you couldn’t really treat a pet like a child no matter how much you may want to dress it up because it’s an animal and we are humans, and that’s the “natural order”, a boundary we’ve constructed. Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb looks to find the horror in obscuring that boundary while also trying to reinforce certain ideas about natural orders that shouldn’t be transgressed. It makes for an interesting starting point, but the film, in its attempt to find the horrifying elements of its folklore eventually becomes nothing more than a constant hum of distant dread that doesn’t seem to serve anything in particular other than giving the movie a particular flavor.
María (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) live a quiet existence on a sheep farm in Iceland. One day, one of their sheep gives birth to a half-lamb, half-human. The childless couple, while shocked, choose to raise the hybrid as their own and dub it “Ada”. While they find happiness with Ada, they are beset by the bleating of Ada’s mother and later find conflict with Ingvar’s screw-up brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who harbors sexual desires for María. While Pétur threatens the domestic harmony María and Ingvar have built together with Ada, there’s also a force of nature out in the world that demands the hybrid.
It’s important to know that Lamb only really works on the level of folklore and its broad abstractions. Jóhannsson never pretends his film is operating in reality, so it’s not exactly a shock that María and Ingvar don’t call a pediatrician or a veterinarian in the same way that no one calls for an architect or a baker when Hansel and Gretel discover a candy house in the woods. It’s all on the level of metaphor with simple stakes meant to illuminate a larger message. The folk horror of Lamb means that our protagonists act rationally within the bounds of the genre, but not exactly how we would expect people to act if they actually discovered a half-human, half-lamb hybrid birthed by a sheep. You have to get on this level of surrealism for Lamb to operate.
The problem with Lamb is that it never really seems worth the effort. Yes, there are interesting questions raised by the boundaries the film seeks to explore like why we have a boundary between humans and animals. We wouldn’t raise humans as livestock and then eat them. If we adopted a child, it wouldn’t be simply removed from the mother, but we’d keep the mother around the house (without saying it, Lamb does hammer home one of the many reasons why chattel slavery is an abomination against any natural order since it demands dehumanization). We may affectionately call our pets our “children”, but we know that there’s a difference between a child and a pet.
And yet Lamb never really carries any of this to an interesting conclusion, so it has to lean hard on the sense of dread Jóhannsson creates throughout the film. At first, that dread is captivating because we want to understand this disruption to nature and what these lines mean and why they’re important to the story. But the film really limps to get there and so you’re only left with this constant sense of foreboding, and it’s really difficult to hold that tone for 106 minutes. For all of the haunting Icelandic vistas and muted colors and long silences punctuated by sound effects, there’s nothing beyond the haunting atmosphere to grab you. We’re left to simply stew in this general folklore horror with some broad ideas about laws of nature and why they shouldn’t be crossed.
Perhaps some will be able to get on Jóhannsson’s wavelength, and more power to them if they do. The film shows a lot of promise as he certainly has control over his tone and genre as far as getting the audience in an uneasy headspace. My main qualm with Lamb is that the film doesn’t really seem to know what to do once it has us in that space. That makes Lamb an experience that’s always on the verge of being interesting, but never quite getting there.
Lamb opens in theaters on October 8th.
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