At this point in time, it is difficult for me to see those glorious alphanumeric characters “A24” without feeling immense anticipation. The company has not only become synonymous with remarkable cinema, but also originality. With a catalogue of films so distinguished (“Moonlight,” “The Lighthouse,” “Uncut Gems,” etc.), the production company has made it apparent that risk-taking is a quality they search for both in a director and a story. Without indie studios like A24, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s “Lamb” would probably have never found a home. The tale of a depressed, childless farming couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), finding happiness through raising a lamb with the body of a human as their own kin is not the typical coming-of-age film on the radar of Hollywood market analysts. Ultimately, A24’s bet paid off. While “Lamb” will alienate a majority of its audience due to its slow pacing, the visuals and unique form of storytelling elevates it into a highly enjoyable film.
Despite the bizarre and chaotic premise, “Lamb” is a surprisingly quiet film, with hardly any music or dialogue throughout. Initially, the film just shows the anguished, childless couple going about their week, not particularly enjoying life or each other. This silence allows the audience to fully appreciate the scenery and scope that unfolds on the breathtaking peaks of Iceland. Shots of the farming duo walking, sitting, tilling and plowing (sometimes in more ways than one) are made majestic by Eli Arenson’s cinematography. “Lamb” ironically mirrors neorealist films, even though there is arguably nothing realistic about the premise. To spice up these shots, Jóhannsson also takes a page from Akira Kurosawa with weather effects that distract our eyes during dull moments. While we see the characters go through the monotony of their day, our eyes never stop moving from the mist, snow and rain that fill up the frame. A shot of Pétur simply walking becomes a moment of piqued interest when we see him get lost in the fog.
Moreover, there is something profoundly charming about the couple’s unremarkable lifestyle. Japanese filmmakers have a philosophy called “ma” (emptiness, or a pause in time) to refer to instances where the story does not control the flow of the film; meaningless moments intrude where characters take a second to breath, enjoy a glass of coffee or reflect on the serenity of their environment. Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli is particularly known for employing this technique. In an interaction with film critic Roger Ebert, Miyazaki said, “If you just have nonstop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.” This stillness adds a welcome hint of realism to an otherwise ludicrous tale. It also completely subverts audience expectations, as we have preconceived notions that dark and mysterious forces are lurking close by, even though the film reveals these forces at its own gentle pace.
Part of the couple’s routine involves going to their barn and helping the sheep go through labor. There are numerous graphic, musty deliveries of bloody lambs. Each one makes the audience question, “When is it going to happen?” We wait patiently as we expect the camera to pan down and show us a monster, only to see another normal lamb. When we finally get to the anticipated lamb-human hybrid birth scene, we expect things to be different. However, the film goes against our assumption; there is no dramatic reveal and no screaming lamb aberration, only the shocked faces of the couple who look down at something we can not see. The lamb is only unveiled about two scenes later. At first, I was underwhelmed and slightly confused, but as the film continued, I realized that this method of reveal was perfect. With no words at all, the couple brings the crossbred creature into their house (to the chagrin of the sheep), wraps it in a blanket and places it in a crib. We understand that this creature is not a curse or even a mystery to them — instead, it is family.
What “Lamb” excels at is the art of “showing” instead of “telling.” There are no explanations, just various events that unfold on screen, allowing the audience to piece together their significance. The moment the lamb enters the house, the couple seems elated. A discussion on their excitement would have been forced and predictable. Instead, through the couple’s newfound loving interactions and brighter settings full of sunshine, the audience can easily get the same knowledge without dialogue. The film focuses on the couple desperately pretending like everything is normal, when everyone watching knows nothing about their situation is conventional. Small instances reveal the forced illusion of happiness. Maria comes off as sweet for practically the entire first half of the film, but when the lamb’s actual mother cries and follows Maria around, seemingly begging for the return of her child, Maria snaps. She becomes the monster and for the first time we do not know who to root for.
The film is chock-full of metaphors and symbolism that can be interpreted in many ways. Is it questioning whether human entitlement to take away an animal’s offspring due to nothing more than superior intelligence is efficacious? Or is it just simply making fun of the people who coddle their pets, dressing dogs up and carrying them in strollers? That is for the audience to decide. This review has framed the film in the “slice of life” genre, which probably confused some readers since A24 marketed it as a horror film. In reality, “Lamb” is somewhere in between. The film does possess the gentle qualities described above, but it is also filled with extreme tension. To truly categorize it, a slow-burn thriller would be most appropriate. It echoes the same sentiments of phenomenal films like “Under the Skin” (Glazer, 2014) or “Burning” (Chang-dong, 2018): extremely slow, but suspenseful stories that build to a subtle, yet explosive ending. While I prefer those films, “Lamb” does the same and still manages to maintain its own integrity and originality.
I recognize this film is not for everyone — my mother would probably murder me if I even thought of taking her to watch the movie. However, it still is a worthy watch that I found myself enjoying precisely for its stylish and authentic presentation. Say what you want, but when have you ever seen a movie about a lamb-human amalgamation being lovingly raised by lonely farmers? The answer is never. A24 is such a great studio because they take chances on ideas, no matter how outlandish, and allow artists to explore whatever topics they want. There is no formula, and that is what attracts their cult-like following of cinemagoers. A24 ensures that superhero movies are not the only films that can be seen in theaters. As a lover of cinema sailing through a turbulent sea of remakes, unnecessary sequels and sellouts, I found “Lamb” to be a sincere sense of relief that cinema and the exploration of the artform will never die.