Lamb (2021)

Valdimar Jóhannsson | 1hr 46min

Through a dreary, snowy landscape somewhere in an Icelandic mountain range, a herd of bedraggled horses wander an open field. We approach them from a distance in one long take, though the sound of heavy breathing clues us in that we are perhaps not a neutral observer in this situation. The horses buck and whinny, spooked by our presence in this expansive, rural region, though the mysterious figure whose identity we have briefly adopted is kept largely offscreen for much of the film.

This description of the opening scene may not help any argument that Lamb is not, in fact, a horror film as it has been advertised, but what it may help to illustrate is just how much first-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson is following in the footsteps of Bela Tarr, the Hungarian filmmaker whose name is essentially synonymous with bleak, arthouse cinema, and who is credited as executive producer on this film. Like Tarr, the use of eerie, repetitive sound design to create the impression of silence is one of Jóhannsson’s greatest tools, letting us tune into the audible breathing of sheep, the whirring engine of a tractor, or the bitter wind blowing through valleys. Dialogue is sparse, but what little there is simply conveys the bare facts of María and Ingvar’s cold, lonely lives.

It takes the supernatural arrival of a semi-horrific, semi-adorable creature on their farm to bring about a sudden shift in mood, and after drawing out the details of what exactly makes this infant so odd for a long time, the reveal comes in an ever so brief glimpse sure to draw a couple of double-takes. It belongs neither to the world of humans, nor to the animal kingdom, yet all it takes is a fleeting period of shock for María and Ingvar to adjust before readily taking on the responsibility of raising it as their own. As they bring out a cot from the shed and set up a nursery, the existence of some past heartbreak is hinted at, letting us in on the emptiness present in their lives. Just like that, Lamb takes a small step away from the horror genre, and more into that of a psychological family drama, probing questions of how parenting instincts overlap with the welfare of such a unique, irreconcilably “different” child.

Though the arrival of Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, in this narrative initially serves to underscore the tension in this messy family dynamic, his presence ultimately does little to sway the emotion of the film one way or the other. Explicit references to a past romance that he and María once shared do serve to instil tension in this family’s unaddressed, repressed emotions, but this touch of relationship drama does end up feeling more like an irrelevant footnote tacked onto everything else we watch play out.

Jóhannsson has a great command over long shots like these, using cold weather conditions to imprint textures on each scene.

Beyond this, there is a lot to be said about the way Jóhannsson finds such unexpected moments of humour in an otherwise merciless film. While combinations of snow, fog, wind, and rain leave us cowering at the beautiful terror of such an unforgiving environment, the ridiculousness of this family’s situation is never forgotten. The tittering one might hear from a theatre audience in certain parts is not at the expense of the film’s tension, nor is it an unintended consequence of some tonal mishandling. When forced to look at Lamb’s bizarre, folklore-tinted body horror, and then simultaneously faced with such desperate attempts by María, Ingvar, and Pétur to incorporate it into the pleasant image of a traditional, nuclear family, the straight-faced absurdity of humanity’s desire to tame the wildest, most incongruous parts of the world can be overpowering. In such situations as these, an exasperated laugh of disbelief directed at our own instinctual need for rigid, sanitised social structures might suffice just as well as anything.

Lamb is currently playing in theatres.

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