When people lose a loved one, they all grieve in a different way. Some become depressed, some angry, some turn to substances to drown the pain, and some try to find something or someone to replace the loss. Arguably, one of the greatest losses is the loss of one's child. In his feature film directorial debut, Vladimar Jóhannsson explores what parents might do for a second chance at happiness in the Icelandic film, Lamb. As an official selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, the movie has created great buzz and has become critically acclaimed the world over.
Maria (Noomi Rapace; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and Ingvar (Hilmer Snær Guðnason; White Night Wedding) are a childless couple who own a sheep farm. Living their very isolated lives, they mourn the loss of their stillborn child, Ada. When one of their sheep mysteriously gives birth to a hybrid human/sheep the couple decides to raise it as their own, naming it Ada. When Ada's biological mother keeps trying to communicate with Ada, Maria shoots her and buries her.
Unknown to her, Ingvar's brother, Pétur (Ada Björn Hlynur Haraldsson; You're Killing Me Susana), witnesses her heinous crime and unsuccessfully blackmails her. The next day as Maria drives Pétur to the train station, Ingvar takes Ada to fix the tractor that broke down in the field. When Maria returns home, she goes looking for her husband and "child" only to find him dying from a gunshot wound and Ada nowhere to be found.
For his debut, Jóhannsson does an admirable job. While the pacing is a little slow, the visuals are expressive. From the vastness of their isolation to the intimacy of the close-ups, he manages to evoke emotions from the viewer throughout. However, the script and lack of dialogue would be a challenge for anyone but even more so for Jóhannsson's first feature film.
With only five cast members, and, as previously mentioned, very little dialogue, the actors need to be able to convey their emotions non-verbally. Luckily, these seasoned performers were well cast and are a bright spot in a strange story. Rapace is brilliant as the quiet and often stoic Maria. Guðnason matches Rapace beautifully, so their relationship seems realistic and Haraldsson is the perfect catalyst for the dose of reality that neither Maria nor Ingvar want to face. Jóhannsson captures their expressions so the viewer can practically read their minds to know what they are thinking.
The best way to describe Lamb is confusing. First, the film is categorized as drama, horror, and mystery and while I understand the drama and mystery, I don't really see it as falling under the horror genre. Second, a creature born half-human/half sheep instantly makes one wonder what Ingvar may have been doing out in that barn. That is one mystery that should remain. Third, the creature that we eventually meet made me whisper out loud, "what the heck?!?". Finally, there is so much left unexplained that the viewer's imagination really can't fill in the holes, leaving the audience…confused.
If there was some Icelandic folklore that prompted this story, it would be nice to know and get some more insight. If this is typical fare in the Icelandic entertainment industry, then that is one unusual country.
I am also confused by the praise being heaped on the movie. Yes, the cast is wonderful. Yes, the visuals are striking. Yes, the story is not the "paint by the numbers" plot we see time and time again. However, the only adjective I can use to sum it up, other than confusing, is simply bizarre. There is "Avant-Garde" and then there is plain old crazy.
Lamb is artistic and evokes a variety of emotions but while a half sheep, half-human baby seems cute, it is also a little disturbing.