María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live on their isolated farm in rural Iceland. Though they talk little, there is clearly affection between the two – but there is also a sadness lingering in the air, much like the fog that shrouds the hills around the farm. They look after the sheep, assisting in the births: work that they make look both arduous and, in their laconic way, loving.
And then, one day, something unexpected is born. Something different. Something that, possibly, isn’t quite right – though who defines what is right, when it comes to these things?
If you watch the trailer for Lamb, you might come away thinking that Valdimar Jóhannson’s film is a horror movie. It is an A24 film, after all, and the trailer brings to mind words such as “eerie”, “uncanny” and “disturbing”, even though it is never quite clear what it is we’re seeing and whether we can believe our eyes. For the film’s first third, at least, it is this quality that characterises Lamb: the gap between what we think is happening and how little we’re actually shown. We see the couple reacting to something. We see them getting a disused crib from the shed. We see María bathing something in a metal tub. Her expression is, again, affectionate, but we don’t see what it is she bathes. And, little by little, the film reveals the strangeness at its heart – and once it has done so, it arguably starts to lose itself.
I’m in something of a quandary here: I would consider Lamb an immensely original film, even in a year that has given us Titane. It is beautifully shot and convincingly acted, with Rapace, Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson grounding a story that could otherwise become too outlandish to work as psychological drama, which is the tone the film generally aspires to. But as a story, it falls apart. If I want to be kind, I could say that it splits itself into a handful of chapters that all have different themes and aims, but that’s not what the film feels like to me: instead, it feels like a short of perhaps 20-30 minutes that, on the strength of its images, performances and atmosphere was extended into a feature film, like Any Muschietti’s Mama or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (which was based on her short film Monster), but much less successfully so than Kent’s film.
That impression was so pronounced that I was surprised to find out that the creators of Lamb – director Jóhannson wrote it together with frequent Björk collaborator Sjón – didn’t start from a short. Their film was created to be a feature to begin with, but the story seems patched together from different ideas and themes, loosely connected by the strange child at its centre, and as a result Lamb, which starts off with feeling cohesive and focused, ends up as something of a shaggy dog story (if I may use a mixed animal metaphor). For its first third, it seems to be about the loss of a child and the finding of solace in strange places, and Rapace and Guðnason do a fantastic job of playing a couple embracing a new addition to the family that under different circumstances might be ominous and frightening. As soon as Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a man with a chip on his shoulder and an unhealthy fixation on María, arrives at the farm, the themes of the film shift, and the film’s uncanny centre takes too much of a backseat to a well-acted but relatively conventional relationship drama. It loses its distinctiveness, but it is still recognisably the same film, albeit one that may have lost its way somewhat.
And then, in its final third, Lamb goes off track completely, turning into an entirely different film, one that is so much more outlandish than what we’ve seen before. In a film that inhabits a different, stranger world to begin with, the last part of Lamb‘s story could have worked – in a film perhaps that’s closer to the sensitivities of the 2018 Swedish fantasy drama Border with its trolls and child pornography rings. The problem is that Lamb starts as an uncanny drama that blends the supernatural with the utterly human with subtlety and sensitivity, and this is what the film is most convincing as. The abrupt tonal shift that it takes as it brings its story to an end is startling, yes, but it is also deeply silly, and Lamb is not prepared to make that silliness work in its favour. The ending is certainly memorable, but I will mostly remember it for laughing out loud, and I spent much of the rest of the film stifling giggles. For much of its running time, the film develops its themes and ideas by means of Lamb‘s blend of the strange and the gentle; in its concluding fifteen minutes, it becomes a joke, and, I suspect, not an intentional one. It is a bit as if Quentin Tarantino had come in to finish off The Turin Horse (whose director, Béla Tarr, co-produced Lamb) in his usual violent pop-art style.
I can imagine a Lamb that is closer to its final third than its first, and that film would be a very different one, but it could work – or a Lamb that builds on what it establishes in its first (and, in my opinion, strongest) third and further develops those ideas. I could also imagine a version of this film that weaves together its disparately handled themes, of childlessness, motherhood and the ways in which humanity exploits nature to serve its own needs. But, as it is, the individual pieces don’t seem to fit, which may be the film’s comment on itself. Perhaps this is meant to be a hybrid that isn’t quite fit for this world – but the ending hints at something quite different. Lamb suggests that it may be the hybrids that inherit the world. The hybrid that is the film, though? In the end, it may not be entirely viable.