Two different things that are having great years came together to create Lamb: A24 (they’ve released Saint Maud, Minari, Zola, Val, and The Green Knight this year and have more to come) and weird lookin’ children (just watch Annette and Titane and you’ll know what I’m talking about. This time around, the weird lookin’ child is a half-human, half-lamb hybrid. Hence the film’s name. How exactly this creature came to be is kept a secret for the majority of this atmospheric Icelandic flick. Writer/director Valdimar Jóhannsson doesn’t seem to be too interested in giving you too many answers in this obviously fantastical world. Rather, the focus is on engrossing you in this contained allegory.
What it’s an allegory for, however, is somewhat unclear. The young lamb is born to an actual full lamb on a remote farm in Iceland, which is inhabited by María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who just go about their regular daily lives until this new baby is born. So they take her in, name her Ada, and raise her as if she was their own child.
It’s interesting to think about Lamb just from the perspective of its premise and to consider how many different avenues the filmmakers could have taken with its tone. If they had gone even slightly tongue-in-cheek (and they could have; Ada looks real Paddington-y at certain points), I think the overall message would have been diminished. So fortunately, everything is played completely straight and taken very, very seriously. It’s an atmospheric feel with fog always in the frame, and little actual darkness thanks to the Icelandic setting. You’d feel completely on edge the entire time if it wasn’t for the film’s air of mystery.
The presence of Ada is a source of conflict, especially when Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives, but it’s not enough to completely drive the story. There’s a perpetual sense that we’re building to something, even though we don’t know exactly what until the movie finally gets there. Until everything finally falls into place, you have to be content to just be along for the feeling and the ride that Jóhannsson is creating. You’re in sure hands.
Jóhannsson, along with cinematographer Eli Arenson, only ever show you exactly what they want you to see. Each shot is full of intention. It’s usually still, but features the occasional pan or dolly shot. The cinematography, along with the music by Þórarinn Guðnason, set the tone that Lamb doesn’t veer from one bit.
But let’s talk about that lamb. What’s her purpose and why did they choose a lamb out of literally the world of available animal stand-ins? I think it’s because of the way lambs typically represent innocence. Ada doesn’t talk. She has almost no agency, but she appears to love her “parents.” So as a viewer, you’re almost required to care for her. But the film makes you wonder, is this just Stockholm syndrome for her? Is she any more than a pet, or is she an actual, feeling person? Is there a difference between the two? There’s a lot to ponder.
I personally thought all the different questions Lamb presented were deep and effective, and I found myself thinking though a lot of different things post-viewing. It can work on an almost literal level in that it makes you put extra thought towards which animals we choose to domesticate (dogs, cats, etc.) and which we choose to take advantage of for our own purposes (sheep, horses, etc.). But it also works allegorically and metaphorically as a movie about adoption, parents, and found family. It got me thinking along both avenues.
Lamb continues A24’s run of very good to great output this year. Though I wasn’t a huge fan of Zola, I adored Minari and The Green Knight, both of which are high on my rankings for 2021 and for A24 as a whole. I really wasn’t expecting to love Lamb as much as I did, but I was blown away. It doesn’t reach the A24 horror heights that Midsommar does for me, but it’s my favorite of the company’s horror flicks otherwise. I think this one is going to stick around in my head for a good while.