Movie Curiosities: Lamb
Here we are again with A24, fine purveyors of prestige horror. Their latest offering is Lamb from director Valdimar Johannsson, here making his directorial debut after an impressive run of VFX work (see: Prometheus, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Fast and Furious 8, Rogue One, and The Tomorrow War). Johannsson also co-wrote the script with Sjon, a prolific novelist/poet/playwright who’s also written numerous songs for Bjork. I might add that Sjon co-wrote the upcoming The Northman alongside Robert Eggers, he who practically invented “prestige horror” as we know it.
(Though I’d personally argue that The Babadook really kick-started the movement in 2014, a year before Eggers made his debut with The Witch. I digress.)
Anyway, The Lamb is set on a farm somewhere in rural Iceland. Maria and Ingvar (respectively played by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are the married couple who run the farm, which primarily means they tend to the sheep. And we get to see their entire daily routine on the farm, at great length, in agonizing detail. No joke, the first half hour of the movie felt like an eternity as I waited for something — ANYTHING — to happen.
I thought things might finally be going somewhere at the half-hour mark, when Maria and Ingvar deliver a new baby lamb. I might add that this is something like the second or third time they’ve midwifed a new lamb. But for whatever reason, the two of them make the choice to adopt this particular lamb (named Ada) and coddle her like she was a newborn baby human. Even more perplexing, Maria has to aggressively deal with the sheep that birthed this particular lamb, who seems adamantly and aggressively certain that her newborn lamb is in the house.
I kept waiting for 40 solid minutes — nearly half the movie! — for anything interesting to happen, or anything to be explained. Then comes the big reveal: Ada is a lamb/human hybrid. Somehow, this sheep birthed an infant with two human legs and a human left hand, but the head and right hoof of a lamb.
No, it’s never explained how this happened. No, we have no idea why this married couple decided to raise this abomination as their own child instead of killing it with fire or running for the hills. But at least it’s something interesting.
Things keep on picking up with the arrival of Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother, who came to crash at the farm after running into some kind of money troubles with unsavory figures. The details are unclear. In any case, Petur finally gets a look at his new adoptive niece and finally asks the question we’ve all been wondering: “What the fuck is this?”
To paraphrase Ingvar’s reply, “It’s not hurting anyone and it makes us happy, so don’t question it.”
Okay. So what we’ve got here is an allegory for raising an LGBTQ child. Or an adoptive child. Or a mixed-race child. Or any kind of child in a demographic that might be “othered” or even considered an outright abomination by small-minded fools. All while the supportive parents refuse to explain or justify their child’s idiosyncrasies on the grounds that no explanation or justification should be necessary. I dig it.
So now Ada’s a toddler and her adoptive parents have to deal with the stress of raising an unusual child, while Petur has to learn to accept his strange niece. So now we’ve got conflict and character development, a family drama with a supernatural allegorical twist. It’s sweet and it’s cute, but the film comes with an ominous score, restrictive static shots, and other prestige horror trappings to give the proceedings a surreal and unnatural feel. Yeah, that second act is wonderful.
Then comes the climax.
Of course I’m limited by spoilers, but I simply could not make heads or tails of that downer ending. Any way I tried to split it, the morality was either nonsensical at best or cruelly misguided at worst. I was so completely thrown off by the ending that I was forced to do the one thing I desperately try to avoid at all costs: I looked up an article that explained the ending. I don’t ever want the filmmakers to explain the film, I’d much rather the film speak for itself, but the film didn’t seem to speak very well for itself, so here we are.
It turns out that if the film is seen as an allegory for living as a parent and raising a surrogate child, or parenting a child who doesn’t fit the mainstream social paradigm, the movie does indeed make no lick of sense. But if the film is seen as a meditation on grief and acceptance, it makes a lot of sense.
Yeah, I forgot to mention one brief moment in the film in which Maria goes to visit the grave of Ada, the dead young daughter and namesake of Maria’s current half-lamb daughter. This is maybe ten seconds smack in the middle of the film, and the previous Ada is never mentioned or referenced at any other point in the film.
So what we’ve got here are a pair of grieving parents, so desperately alone in their pain and loss, that they would steal a half-human child (who, remember, was born to a goddamn sheep) in a woefully misguided effort at replacing the girl they lost. Even knowing that there will be a reckoning someday for this theft, they’re willing and eager to enjoy what time they have with their second shot at parenting.
It’s a lovely sentiment. And there are so many reasons why it doesn’t work here.
I want to stress emphatically that the ONLY way this could possibly work is in the context of grief and loss. The first Ada should have been a much, MUCH more prominent offscreen presence because this whole angle falls apart without her. And it’s not like we didn’t have the space or the screen time for it, in between all the shots of Maria and Ingvar silently going about their day. Sure, they look bored and passionless, but how the hell was I supposed to know it was because of a dead kid?!
Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that we learn virtually nothing about the nature of Lamb Ada and her biological parentage. More to the point, Lamb Ada is entirely mute and a sheep is only capable of so much facial expression. She’s a helpless toddler with virtually no capacity for speech or emotion, so the centerpiece of our plot and themes has precious little in the way of agency or depth. Put it all together, and it’s little wonder why that ending makes virtually no sense on first watch.
In the final analysis, Lamb is a film that I respect much more than I like. It’s certainly a well-crafted movie on a technical level, all three of the lead actors turn in marvelous work, and the creature effects look fantastic throughout. The big problem here is that the film is too damn opaque for its own good. I can appreciate withholding information for the sake of suspense, and an ambiguous ending can make a good film into a great one under the right circumstances. But in this case, the filmmakers went too far and made a film that’s bursting with heart, yet frustratingly incoherent.
Seriously, it says a lot that in terms of pregnancy-based foreign horror flicks, I got more sense out of goddamn Titane. Though at least this movie didn’t make me want to throw up, so there’s that. I can recommend this one to the hardcore prestige horror fans, but nobody else should bother.
For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to help my upcoming play and get your own hyperlink in the online program.