Valdimar Jóhannsson has delivered an absolutely fascinating debut, one that is as quietly dramatic as it is intensely off-putting. Advertised as a horror film, a story about a family that spirals out of control, it is instead a domestic tale about toxic family interactions in the Icelandic rural scene. This slowly-dying community is one ripe for folk stories that shine a lens on the dichotomy between the encroaching modern world and the fading farming traditions.
Lamb, co-written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic poet/novelist Sjón (their answer to Britain’s Neil Gaiman), tells the story of Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). These two shepherds are struggling their way through the aftermath of some tragedy, one that is never explicitly stated but is heavily implied to be the loss of a child. One day they see that there is an oddity as they birth a new lamb. The reveal of the film, which takes place about a third of the way through and was revealed quite openly in the trailer and is more important the the folktale aspect of the film than anything horrific. Ada, as the couple dubs her, is a child with the head of a lamb (as well as one hoof sticking out of her sweater sleeve) that becomes a surrogate to channel their pain into.
In an interview for Inside Hook, Sjón speaks on the the acceptance of weird and dark fantasy creatures in mythological folklore. Maria and Ingvar are immediately loving and accepting of this child, having no idea where she came from and what she truly is, and when Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up things begin to fall apart. Pétur represents the future, an industrial and modern-age individual encroaching on this quiet, foggy life in the hills. He’s clad in black leather and is formerly from a popular Icelandic rock band, all things that stand against the wool-clad farmers in their forgotten home. His modernity, which classes nicely against the abandoned farm the film was shot at, serves as a nice grounding that reminds Maria and Ingvar that this creature isn’t normal and is indeed a problem.
Ada is not the real issue, at least not outside of the absurdist appearance she flaunts at every turn. The family dynamic is far more fraught than anything she could cause, with hints of a sexual history between Pétur and Maria with Ingvar ambiguously in the dark. Pétur is the agent of chaos here, which is an oddity up next to a child that has a lamb-head. While Ingvar and Maria live in a symbiotic relationship with nature, the balance of power is never truly theirs. No amount of control can actually stand up to what they’ve stumbled upon, and it leads to a climax most are going to find truly baffling.
While I can’t recommend this to everyone, I can certainly say that those willing to accept the slow-burn nature of Jóhannsson’s debut (coupled with the sheer absurdism of the way Ada is visualized) will find plenty of contemplative material to mine here. Sure, the film opens with a large, heavily-breathing entity that has sex with a sheep, but from there everything cools down into an intricate look at the complexity of power dynamics not only within a family, but between man and nature.
Lamb is currently playing in select theatres.