In “The Other Lamb,” Raffey Cassidy plays a young woman whose first period coincides with the discovery of a miscarried lamb fetus. Such is the territory we’re in with Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska and screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen’s allegorical slice of folk horror, and boy are we in for it. Though hardly subtle in its metaphoric intent, this story of a rural cult of all women, segregated into “sisters” and “wives,” led by a single powerful man makes for an unnervingly effective thriller dripping with atmosphere and foreshadowing.
Cassidy stars as Selah, one of the “sisters” in the Flock, as its deemed by their overseer, the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). While he certainly fits the bill of the Charismatic Cult Leader, he’s a bit more brooding as he smothers his acolytes with kindness. Almost all of them are brainwashed blondes he’s either plucked out of civilization, or bred in-house using his stable of wives, who’ve spiritually expired. Selah isn’t especially close to any of the other sisters, and it’s a testament to Cassidy’s gifts that, without much dialogue, most of Selah’s struggle is a buildup of internal shifts. There are flashbacks — or are they reveries? — of Selah in a prior life as a normal teenager. But any spiritual vim within her has been stamped out within the parameters of the cult, which prohibit any interaction with anything related to the outside world. “It’s a broken place made by broken people,” the Shepherd says.
Selah is also alienated from her group because, since she’s a late bloomer in the menstruation department, she isn’t considered fertile, and therefore really even useful. Repeated imperatives of “your time will come” feel ominous and scary, and this countdown to hell inside the walls of a cult can’t help but conjure thoughts of “Midsommar” or Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which takes place in a similarly patriarchal world where women are seen as breeding vessels, and nothing more.
There’s not a lot of hope here. In whatever part of the world this cult is in, the weather looms grey and dank, such that the outsides constantly match Selah’s insides. But there is a storm inside her, as the film steadily mounts to become an epic parable of female revenge. The ways in which the Shepherd grooms his women — most of whom become disposable, as revealed in a harrowing shot of empty dresses next to the riverbed — is a recognizable kind of modus operandi. His tactics include kissing the women on the forehead, or, in several shocking moments, jamming fingers in their mouths as an act of penetration and possession. It’s icky, but also resembles the pathology of the very real sexual predators in the world.
As the Shepherd, Huisman makes an alluring impression, and the actor is, of course, very handsome, which both helps and hurts. It’s not hard to see why some of these vulnerable women would fall under his sway. “His attention is like the sun: bright and glorious at first, but then it just burns,” one of the wives says. As Selah gets closer to sexual maturation, the Shepherd tightens his hold, culminating in a full-blown sexual assault that’s excruciating to watch, and the terror is conveyed entirely on Cassidy’s horrified face.
Clearly, the 18-year-old actress has a propensity for dark roles. She played the survivor of a school shooting in “Vox Lux,” and the precocious daughter of a family under psychological attack in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” While you could hardly call “The Other Lamb” a star-making turn, this is Cassidy’s biggest vehicle yet, and there’s undoubtedly much more to come from this bright, rising actor.
Szumowska’s filmmaking is cautious when it counts, right before getting in your face with phantasmagorical flashes of horrifying imagery. “Cold War” and “Ida” editor Jaroslaw Kaminski’s cuts are elusive and elliptical, often skipping over crucial information to get right to the heart of something awful. Several significant deaths are implied, but never seen, only to be confirmed (or not) suddenly later on. To experience “The Other Lamb” is to exist in a state of feverish delusion, much like the shrieking women in the “sisters” camp (the “wives,” by now, are hardened, too far gone and drained of any soul). The allegory of an all-women cult in flight from their identities, and reality, in service of a man has been wrought before, and it’s about as subtle as a brick through a windshield. But in Szumowksa’s capable hands, with Cassidy as her anchor, this one leaves a haunting aftertaste.
“The Other Lamb” is now available on VOD via IFC Films.