The Icelandic movie Lamb (101 minutes, without the end credits) is an odd psychological drama that uses its open, isolated location, washed-out colors, subtle performances and sparse dialogue to provide an unsettling mood to its offbeat, dark, allegory. Almost fairy-tale like, it is a slow-burn that takes its time building on its themes. It is quite compelling in the moment yet, when the credits started to roll, it occurred to me that Lamb didn’t say as much about loss or being a parent as it was probably trying to. Even so, atmosphere and mood tend to affect me more than melodrama, thus I was engaged. Though I can certainly see it losing some audience members as they wait impatiently for the plot to thicken, so to speak.
Maria and Ingvar live on a farm in rural Iceland, tending to their animals. Their life appears to be without joy. Then, one of their sheep gives birth to something that is not exactly a lamb. Maria immediately falls in love with the baby and the couple decides to raise it as their own. Their newfound happiness is tested when Ingvar’s brother makes a surprise visit.
There is a lot more to Lamb than that, most notably the nature of the creature they essentially adopt. The movie does such a good job of giving the audience only small bits of detail at a time and I don’t want to ruin that experience for anyone planning to see it. Similar to last week’s Titane, it is better to go in to Lamb knowing as little as possible. Just know that it requires patience on the part of the viewer.
Director Valdimar Jóhannsson, making his debut, is very assured in his approach. He shows us gray skies, fog and an empty landscape, mixing in the sounds of tractors and farm animals. It is a testament to how successfully he sets a mood that a sheep bleating goes from normal farm noise to unnerving fairly quickly. He uses images a lot more than dialogue to tell his story. The power of the cinema lies in the way images can be edited together to say whatever the filmmakers want. Here, the faces of the actors, sheep staring at the camera and shots of fields with mountains looming in the background speak a thousand words.
Noomi Rapace as Maria and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as Ingvar are both good at seeming calm on the surface, while expressing many other emotions if you look any closer (love, fear and guilt are the biggest ones). Rapace carries large stretches of the movie just in the way she looks at the other performers in a scene. She says significantly more with her facial expressions than with any of her lines. I have been a fan of Rapace ever since she starred in the Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy in 2009. She is impressive here doing a lot with a character that isn’t really as deep as this movie probably needed her to be. Guðnason is equally strong in an even thinner role. However, credit to Jóhannsson and his cowriter, Sjón, for giving Ingvar a couple of moments by himself that very subtly tell us important information about his relationship with his wife and how he feels about her choices.
Lamb doesn’t spell itself out. It forces the viewer to do some work deciphering its metaphors. There are sure to be several interpretations of its action, resulting in interesting conversations. It is peculiar, slow, strangely haunting in a few of its images and, eventually, maybe a little disappointing, but I am glad I saw it. It is definitely something different.
3½ out of 5
Noomi Rapace as Maria
Hilmir Snær Guðnason as Ingvar
Björn Hlynur Haraldsson as Pétur
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Written by Sjón and Valdimar Jóhannsson