This folkloric tale of a sheep-baby hybrid is a fascinating and frustrating slow burn that defies genre conventions
Released under the A24 banner and bearing more than a few surface similarities to some of their previous output -most notably The Witch and Midsommar – Valdimar Jóhannsson's Lamb arrives burdened with the expectations of fitting in amongst the distributor’s signature “elevated horror” stable. Go in looking for frights, though, and you’ll be disappointed; this is a much slower study of grief and loneliness, though it is shot through with a bleak folkloric weirdness that does have the power to disquiet.
In her first Icelandic role, Noomi Rapace plays Maria, a woman clearly consumed by mourning as she runs her remote sheep farm alongside her equally shattered husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). There’s a grey pall of loss across every part of their lives, until it is lifted in the unlikeliest circumstances. During lambing season, one of their sheep gives birth to a miraculous lamb/baby hybrid (head and right arm of a sheep, everything else human), and Maria and Ingvar instantly take this creepy yet adorable infant into their home, naming her Ada.
Johansson clearly doesn’t want us spending too much time on the “how” of the situation – Maria and Ingvar accept the creature instantly, and even Ingvar’s sinister older brother Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) swiftly adjusts to Ada after he arrives at their farm following some money troubles. Instead, the focus is on a slow-burn shift in the pair’s family dynamic as Ada grows up and the pair rediscover what it means to live, rather than simply exist.
Lamb is never in a hurry, and its ambling pace can prove a little frustrating, even with Johansson’s many artful shots of the starkly beautiful Icelandic wilderness. His local mythology-infused script, co-written with novelist and lyricist Sjon (who also co-wrote Robert Eggers’s upcoming The Northman), is generally short on dialogue, relying more on atmosphere. This atmosphere is rich and heavy when it works, but there are a few noteworthy breaks that really chuck you out of the film’s world.
What constantly keeps you invested, though, is Ada herself. A clever mix of prosthetics, CG, and actual lambs and child actors, she never feels anything less that utterly real, and you find yourself growing attached to her almost as quickly as Maria and Ingvar do. These visuals, part grounded and part pure fairytale, are matched by some superb sound design that melds baby gurgling with soft baas in a way that could have hit the uncanny valley but instead is just very sweet.
Distinctly not a horror film, Lamb actually often just makes its home in this sort of sweetness, with a lot of its runtime spent on this shaggy dog (or woolly sheep) story of a new makeshift family – at least until a deliberately divisive final 20 minutes. This ending, both ambiguous and genuinely upsetting, might not sit well with everyone, but it’s testament to Johansson’s ambition and world-building that it does still, for the most part, feel earned. It’s a fitting cap to an unclassifiable story, one that doesn’t always abide by genre rules and is all the more intriguing for it.
Lamb is released in UK cinemas from 10 December.Where to watch