Where to begin with the batshit crazy premise of “Lamb”? The best starting point is a line spoken by one of its characters about halfway through: “What the fuck is this?” From there, it’s worth noting that even the simplest description of the movie’s premise spoils the essence of its appeal, if not the complex and even artful way it unfolds.
Anyone sufficiently intrigued by an icy Icelandic drama about a pair of aspiring parents and sheep farmers who encounter a bizarre opportunity to fulfill their dreams might want to stop here. First-time writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been schooled in the eloquent atmospheric horror of “The Witch” and “Hereditary” to such a precise degree that “Lamb” may as well exist as a spin-off. (Don’t put it past distributor A24 to have franchise ambitions in mind.) But “Lamb” takes a low-key minimalist approach to its premise that invites a certain shock-and-awe reaction before doubling back to give it purpose.
Though Jóhannsson’s debut sometimes has the kind of sketchbook quality of a newcomer not quite capable of building on a well-defined mood, “Lamb” is certainly audacious and eerie enough to establish a competent genre filmmaker with vision to spare. Any details beyond that and the movie’s entire appeal collapses under the outré nature of its central gimmick. Spoiler culture can sometimes get carried away about the need to obscure plot details from the public record, but “Lamb” truly does benefit from a cold viewing experience.
Still here? OK, here goes: “Lamb” is about a young couple, María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), who adopt a child with the head of a lamb as their daughter. That’s right: One night, while helping their animals give birth, they discover one of them has delivered a child with the body of a human infant attached to a head that looks not unlike the furry, dead-eyed critters roaming around in the pen.
That’s the crux of it, though “Lamb” rewards viewers who prefer to play the waiting game. The camera doesn’t reveal a cutaway to the new creature when it arrives, yielding an eerie sense of ambiguity early on until the abrupt revelation that arrives some 40 minutes into the movie in an almost casual, off-handed fashion designed to throw its audience off their guard. It works, though it takes some time for the ludicrous reveal to settle in. Jóhannsson’s conviction to play it straight makes an ongoing case for the story even as it dares you not to crack up at its inherent absurdity.
Clearly, this disquieting slow-burn has been hinting at something ominous lurking in the green, empty mountains just beyond the farm, somewhere within the grey fog drifting through. Those suspicions prove true, with some first-rate creature effects revealed in the final act. Before they do, though, “Lamb” has established a rather grounded look at a relationship on the rocks, and the stabilizing effect of a new infant child that might give them a second chance.
Before you can say “Au Hasard Bah-lthazar,” the lamb in question, who’s named Ada by her adopted parents, doesn’t exactly act. Its bland gaze sits atop a tiny body divided physically between human and animal appendages, as it grows up over the course of several years. (The effect is achieved through a mostly convincing blend of CGI and puppets.) In that process, the movie actually delves into a subtle exploration of the way parents can project their own dreams and desires onto an innocent offspring at the mercy of the world around them.
Of course, the contrast between genuine depth and the silliness of the underlying concept is exactly what gives the movie such unique, if simplistic, appeal. When Ingvar’s hitchhiking brother Pétar surfaces out of nowhere in search of a place to crash, he drops right into the middle of the baffling scenario we’ve watched evolve across the first two acts. His shocked reaction is an even better sight gag than the freak of nature who looks back at him.
With only three (human) characters engaging in a tense power struggle in the fallout of Ada’s arrival, the tension starts to grow. Pétar, a hot mess and heavy drinker who once was a successful musician, goes from skeptical of his brother and sister-in-law’s new adoptee to developing a more dangerous mindset as the tension builds bit by bit. And while Pétar may look like the troublemaker of the group, María is the one who seems most committed to the role of parenting that literally dropped into her lap.
Jóhannsson co-wrote “Lamb” with Icelandic novelist Sjón (who also scripted Robert Eggers’ forthcoming “The Northman”), and the collaboration reflects the sparse nature of Sjón’s prose work. The dialogue is minimal and matter-of-fact; nobody ever takes a real stab at understanding Ada’s origins or why they matter beyond the initially positive impact that she has for her parents. That’s key to its oddball appeal, which grows more engrossing with time as it becomes clear that the director refuses to drop his grim, humorless approach at all costs. It’s a noble ambition, doomed from the start, but it’s engrossing to watch him try.
The actors fully commit to the strange task at hand. As the biggest name of the bunch, Rapace (who’s actually Swedish) delivers a compelling performance loaded with frantic uncertainty about her new parenthood, and steeped in a level of authenticity totally out of whack with the ridiculousness onscreen. The men in the movie are tasked with exhibiting masculine bravado as the family situation tips into a love-triangle complication that doesn’t really enrich the plot. Ada, of course, steals the show so well that when the movie arrives at an even bigger twist in its final moments, it underserves the substantial slow-build leading up to it.
Jóhannsson utilizes a complex soundscape that hints at an unseen threat overseeing the developing farmland circumstances, as some of the wild sheep gather atop the mountain and gaze down at the farm. On its own, these sequences amount to a disturbing collection of horror in small doses, but in the context of a melodrama that owes more to Bergman than Cronenberg, they also enhance the simmering tension between the married couple and their interloper below. No matter the shock value of the creature at its center, “Lamb” is ultimately about the rash decisions of people willing to do anything to preserve their dream of an idyllic life.
Additionally, “Lamb” hints at eco-horror themes as the tension between the small cast builds. Conflating their desire to live off the land with an effort to integrate it into their household, they’re stuck with a creature that represents those unnatural impulses fused together, and never stop to consider whether the child actually belonged to them in the first place.
Of course, like all good survival horror, the situation has spiraled out of control before anyone’s learned their lesson. Viewers who have stuck with the movie this far certainly have learned something, though: The premise of “Lamb” is hilarious in parts, but Jóhannsson isn’t kidding around. Even as his debut derives from recent “elevated horror” efforts, it funnels them into a concept that eventually works on its own terms; it’s both a complex metaphor as well as one helluva sight gag. If the starting point is, “What the fuck is this?,” the answer is obvious: It’s “Lamb.”
“Lamb” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States at a later date.