Lamb (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A coldly unnerving drama from Iceland

Icelandic film “Lamb”, which was recently included in the shortlist for Best International Film Oscar, is a coldly unnerving drama which intrigues us with its very weird story premise at first. Although its final few minutes is a letdown compared to what has been so carefully built up in terms of mood and details, the movie is still fairly impressive on the whole thanks to its mood, storytelling, and performance, and I observed it with some curiosity and fascination despite becoming a bit impatient from time to time.

After the opening scene which succinctly sets the ambiguously ominous tone on the screen, the movie shows us the daily life of Maria (Noomi Rapace) and her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). They have run a farm located in some remote rural place, and nothing seems to be particularly bad in the farm, but we gradually come to sense something missing in their rather isolated life. While they are seemingly happy to be with each other, they do not have any child between them, and the camera often observes how empty and barren their supposedly cozy domestic environment is.

And then something quite unexpected happens. When one of the female sheep under their care is about to go through its delivery stage, Maria and Ingvar are certainly ready to help its delivery, but then they are surprised and flabbergasted to see a very strange creature coming out of that female sheep. The camera simply looks at their confused faces for a while instead of showing this creature in details, but that is more than enough for us to discern how extraordinary their situation is.

For a reason to be revealed later in the story, Maria decides to take care of the creature for herself, and Ingvar goes along with that without any hesitation as her good husband. As the creature grows day by day, Maria becomes more emotionally attached to it, and Ingvar does not mind that at all because, well, the mood in their house becomes less barren than before.

Now I should be more discreet here for not spoiling your entertainment, but I can tell you instead more on how director/co-writer Valdimar Jóhannsson and his crew members including cinematographer Eli Arenson and editor Agnieszka Glinska subtly accumulate more mood and tension on the screen. While Arenson’s camera frequently looks around the cold and stark landscapes surrounding the main characters in the story, the movie is imbued with some uncanny atmosphere, and that is further enhanced by the ambient score by Þórarinn Guðnason. As a result, we become more involved in the story while also wondering more about what may happen next to the main characters.

During the second act, the situation becomes a bit complicated as another character enters the picture. When this figure subsequently sees what Maria and Ingvar are doing in their house, there understandably comes a personal conflict between them and this figure, but then this figure cannot help but feel some compassion to how much Maria and Ingvar care about the creature, who is virtually their dear child around that point.

So far, I have been rather vague about the creature in the film. If you have seen its trailer, I am sure you already have a pretty good idea about how the creature looks, but the movie will tantalize you as showing the creature bit by bit before fully revealing it at last. I do not dare to tell you about how it exactly looks, but it somehow reminds me of that hybrid creature in “The Fly” (1958). Although I could clearly see how the creature is presented on the screen via CGI and some practical special effects, it looks convincing on the screen nevertheless, and that is one of the main reasons why the story works despite its preposterous aspects.

Anyway, the circumstance eventually becomes less tense and more cordial among the four main figures in the story, but then the movie slowly dials up the level of creepiness bit by bit. As implied by the opening scene, the birth of the creature is not merely accidental at all, and we come to sense more of something lurking around the farm.

What is finally revealed around the end of the film will not surprise you much in addition to feeling rather anti-climactic, but its main cast members still hold our attention as before. As she previously did in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009), Noomi Rapace, who also serves as the executive producer of the film along with Béla Tarr, does not step back at all from her character’s several intense emotional moments, and she and Hilmir Snær Guðnason click well with each other even during a number of silent moments between them. As another substantial part of the story, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson brings some cheerfulness to the movie, and he has its own small moment when his character brightens up the mood a bit for others at one point.

In conclusion, “Lamb” is not entirely without flaws, but it is still an intriguing piece of work nonetheless, so I recommend it with some reservation. After Leos Carax’s “Annette” (2021) and Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” (2021), here comes another offbeat film of this year which deserves to be remembered along with these two other films for a good reason, and I assure you that you will not be disappointed if you are looking for something odd and different.

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