“Lamb,” directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is an Icelandic film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year before seeing a limited U.S. release through A24. An addition to the slowly popularizing folk horror genre, “Lamb” is a minimalistic film shot in the middle of nowhere, featuring little dialogue, plot or entertainment.
The film follows a husband and wife on their farm where they plant nondescript vegetation and raise sheep. The couple is in a rut when a lamb is born with a peculiar deformity. María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) proceed to raise this unique lamb as if it were a human baby, and very little of note occurs as a result.
It cannot be overstated how crushing this film is to experience. “Lamb” seems to be a film made for film critics, pretentious movie buffs and no one else. I fancy myself both a film critic and a pretentious movie buff and yet, this movie drained me. It drained me of joy, passion and hope.
Thinking back on this film is agony, not because of any deep emotional complexity, but because I know I will never get back those 100 minutes of sheer boredom. This is a slow movie, which is in no way, in and of itself, a critique. Every classic of the ’60s and ’70s is slow. David Lynch, Ari Aster and Charlie Kaufman are talented modern directors who pace their movies carefully. But things must happen, a plot has to occur, characters need to do things. A director cannot rely on the pomposity of their viewers alone to defend a movie that has nothing to offer.
“Lamb” is silent for most of its runtime. The three characters with the ability to speak rarely do, music creeps in only on the rare occasions when plot occurs and ambient sounds of nature are silenced to an unrealistic degree for rural Iceland. The bleats of sheep score this movie more than anything else. Actions should be occurring within the silence that plagues “Lamb.” Silence accompanied by compelling visuals is a core building block of the folk horror genre. The beauty of the countryside or depictions of monotony that represent the pace of María and Ingvar’s life grow tired and meaningless quickly.
[Spoilers from here on]
Pacing, scoring and visuals can all be largely overlooked for a good story. Interesting characters with complex relationships or an unpredictable engaging plot could have saved this movie. “Lamb’s” characters consist of an average couple whose most defining moment is María refusing a kiss from her brother-in-law, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a man with a vaguely troubled past, and a lamb, named Ada, whose adorable sheep head sits on top of a primarily human body. Ada may stick out as unique or compelling but once the initial shock of a lamb with a human arm wears off, she’s no different than a toddler. Since so few things happen throughout this film, any shocking moment or potential point of interest fades into the monotony.
“Lamb” takes itself too seriously. This could be a point of cultural miscommunication—I am not well versed in Icelandic cinema, but how can “Lamb” simultaneously be pretentious to the point of being insufferable while building a story around one of the most ridiculous looking creatures in modern cinema. Ada looks silly, laugh out loud bad, and any attempt to create emotion around her likeness is not going to work, yet she is the emotional centerpiece of the movie. Sheep are cute and all but they are not the best actors. The body of a small child with the dead black eyes of a lamb juxtapose each other in an unavoidably comedic way. Ada would have been a far more sympathetic character if she was just a lamb. At least then I would not laugh every time she came on screen. The human characters are underdeveloped; Ada’s design cannot carry any emotional weight. The quality story needed to make up for how boring the rest of the movie is cannot be built on this group of subpar characters.
I came into “Lamb” with high expectations. Within 20 minutes of this awful movie, I succumbed to the reality that “Lamb” would be added to the shortlist of films that I would not have finished had I not promised to review them.