You know something isn’t right in Lamb, the odd, unsettling, soon-to-be-your-cult-movie-of-choice straight outta Iceland, from the moment you see the look. It’s a glance exchanged between a husband (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and a wife (Prometheus‘ Noomi Rapace). We’ve already watched them go about their daily routines on their remote farm, quietly tending to their flock of sheep, tilling soil, exchanging pleasantries and what seems like the coldest of comforts. A heaviness hangs over the couple; an empty child’s room points towards something too tragic to speak of. One winter evening, as they’re assisting a ewe with the birth of her lambs, the last of the animal’s offspring attract their attention. The weak, quiet sound its making suggests it’s the runt of the litter. Given the weather outside, the poor thing probably won’t last the night.
And that’s when the look happens. Both seem confused, concerned, but somehow awakened from a slumber. There is a distinct shift in their dynamic. They wrap up the tiny creature in a blanket, take it into the house, and the wife feeds it with a bottle. Later, we see her swaddling the lamb, cradling it in her arms as she walks in circles, whispering a lullaby into its ear and lulling it to sleep. A viewer, at this point, is likely to wonder what, exactly is going on. Why are they so attached to this lamb? Why are they treating it like a baby? What’s up with the sheep standing outside their door, bleating angrily at them, giving them the livestock stink-eye?
Director Valdimar Jóhannsson is toying with us, keeping things cryptic, dropping tiny bits of information here and there, just enough to keep folks one half-step behind everything. Eventually, he lets down the curtain so we get a better picture of what’s going on — at which point his debut feature somehow becomes a hundred times creepier, and a thousand times more poignant. It’s a horror movie, to be sure, and one with a particularly disturbing visual at the center of it. (A hearty congratulations to the VFX team that worked on this.) No matter how many times it repeats or slightly varies, that image remains the key to what makes Lamb tick, as well as what makes it so moving. What felt like an unusual metaphor for how parenting taps into an inherent need to nurture suddenly swerves into Grimms’ fairy-tale territory. It’s the sweetest, most touching waking nightmare you’ve ever experienced.
That isn’t to say that the rest of the elements — the other ingredients in Lamb‘s stew — aren’t wonderful (Rapace is particularly on point, even when the story dips headfirst into the weird, and then the even-weirder), or that they don’t contribute to the exact combination of tender and disturbing Jóhannsson is chasing. Another person eventually joins this trio, a louche, leather-jacketed hipster (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who turns out to be the husband’s brother. He initially appears to be a potential threat to the couple’s newfound paradise, then possibly an ally, and eventually someone who, along with his fellow humans, may have to answer for what has happened. To say more would itself be a crime. It’s a movie that demands you experience it on its own terms. But it bears mentioning that Lamb does remind us that it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. That matriarchal force has a way of pushing back, hard.