You know the infamous interview question: “sell me this pen?” Well, that’s what I am going to try to do with Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature-length directorial debut, “Lamb.” Except in this case, the pen is broken, uncomfortable to hold and doesn’t always write in spite of having ink. Why do I want to sell you this pen, you ask? Well — despite the fact that it might be the worst pen you’ve ever seen, I truly like this pen and think you should too!
“Lamb” takes its audience to the remote Icelandic wilderness, where a couple live out monotonous lives on a sheep farm. The couple, María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), find themselves unexpectedly broken from their monotony when one of their sheep gives birth to a lamb-human hybrid.
You read that right: half-human, half-sheep baby. The reality of the baby, Ada, is kept a surprise until about a third of the way into the movie. If you’re reading this review or watching the movie, it’s probably because you have seen the trailer — revealing that Ada is a hybrid was crucial for this film to be even remotely marketable. However, its promotion is where this film encounters its first issues.
A24 has come to be known for distributing, offbeat and obscure movies, especially in the horror genre. Movies like “Saint Maud (2019)” , “Hereditary (2018)” and “The VVitch (2015)” have become staples for A24’s brand of slow burn, allegorical horror films. The trailer for “Lamb” sets the stage for it to nicely become another addition into this subgenre. However, this is not the case, giving viewers who see the trailer wildly different expectations than what is actually given. Seeing as there is a drastically miniscule chance that someone would buy a ticket to this film without seeing a trailer, this essentially alienates every viewer of this movie.
Unmet expectations can make people feel cheated, or feel as though the movie was bad. This is especially prevalent within the horror genre: when something isn’t what it’s “supposed to be,” it’s bad. The genre of horror is an extremely broad one, but “Lamb” might be something along the edges. A film whose main goal isn’t to scare you. So setting up “Lamb” as something akin to “Hereditary” or “Midsommar (2019),” puts it at a disadvantage.
“Lamb” begins in a snowstorm, with a herd of horses running away from an unseen, heavily breathing being. The camera is lingering and deliberate, something that continues throughout the film. Prolonged shots of vast, icy mountains and foggy, grassy plains set the atmosphere of the Icelandic summers where the sun hardly sets and a pale blue constantly illuminates the land. Director Jóhannsson stated in an interview with IndieWire that shooting at this time was intentional.
“The [daylight] can be more scary, when everybody can see you, and you can almost see everything,” Jóhannsson said.
Like the camera, the film’s pacing is also very slow and atmospheric. It is quite a while before the first line of dialogue is spoken, and there really isn’t much more of it throughout the rest of the film. Information and emotion is communicated using looks and body language, both among the characters and to the audience. The film has its moments of high tension and intensity, but a lot of it is just a family going about their days. So much of the action is just their regular lives — farming, having dinner and cleaning. It’s a quiet movie, both figuratively and literally.
In an interview with DiscussingFilm, Jóhannsson explains that he thinks “that everybody should [see the movie] so they can decide what genre they want to put it in. Because, you know, we all have our different views.”
I believe a more accurate description for “Lamb” is a family drama about grief, with some horror elements. This description leaves less of a gap between expectation and reality for viewers. That’s certainly not to say there isn’t any horror, this film will undoubtedly unsettle you and get under your skin. Its visuals and motifs aren’t just nature and family, but also death and deep sorrow. So if you decide to go catch this Icelandic, genre-fluid film — don’t expect to be scared. Emotions that are to be expected include, but are not limited to: confusion, shock and cuteness overload.
That last emotion is almost guaranteed, with the star of the movie — Ada. Ada, played by 10 different children and four lambs, takes some time to make an appearance; when she does, it is inarguably uncanny and unsettling, especially if you’ve somehow managed to buy a ticket to this movie without seeing a trailer. Even with that knowledge though, seeing Ada in full for the first time can be jarring, though not a terribly inaccurate reaction to seeing the physical hybrid of a toddler and a sheep. My two friends and I, who made up 60% of the audience in a theater, fell in-line with our reactions to her reveal.
As the film continues, we see more of her living a joyful life — playing with the dog and prancing around while wearing bright, colorful sweaters— and it becomes very difficult not to become attached to this tiny freak of nature. There was an audible “awww” basically every time she was on screen. Even if you decide that this is the worst movie you’ve ever spent $12.75 on like my friend probably did, every time Ada appears on screen with her fluffy sheep head poking out of that warm, probably wool, sweater, you’ll want to become a sheep farmer yourself.
“Lamb” reads more like a storybook fairytale than what most people think of as horror. Its landscapes are picturesque, and the premise has a childlike absurdity to it. There are only a handful of characters, and the amount of dialogue in the movie is probably equivalent to that of a picture book. This is definitely a hard sell to most audiences, certainly mainstream ones. However, if you’re in a mood to try something new, “Lamb” is most definitely unlike any movie you’ve ever seen before. Watch it on your own, or with a date — it’s cuffing season after all.
Hillary Gil is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.