It is challenging to discuss the Icelandic psuedo-horror film Lamb without spoiling a few elements key to its story. If you are planning to see it, fair warning that this review will tread into minor spoiler territory.
Director Valdimar Jóhannsson shows promise is this assured if slight rumination on grief and parenthood, with a healthy dose of man vs nature thrown in. Living on a pastoral farm, married couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Sær Guonason) barely speak as they raise sheep and plow the land. The couple seems to find little joy in the process. You can sense that something tragic has happened to them. One quickly wonders why with all this land and space they don't have any children.
Even before we meet this couple, Lamb strict an ominous tone. The film opens from the point-of-view of some creature, breathing heavily and watching the farm. Once the central and rather bonkers focus of the story is revealed, you may forget about this opening scene but it comes back around so pay attention. The film reveals a true WTF moment once the couple brings a lamb into their home and begins raising it as a child. This shocking sight won't be fully described here but it requires an acceptance of a special effect that the whole film hinges on. For me, it doesn't entirely work. It elicited a laugh from me and I don't think it was intended to.
The film is likely to get some comparisons to other A24 horror films, most notably Robert Eggers' The Witch and Ari Aster's Midsommar. Lamb is a very different film that never fully gives over to the horror genre as those films do. This is far closer to a folk lore that has a magical realism to it. Ada, the half-lamb half-human creation lives in the realm of fantasy more than horror. She is at times adorable and at other times eerie. Maria and Ingvar welcome her into their lives so fully that you feel the pull to do so yourself. When Ingvar's brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up, the peaceful dynamic is slowly shaken. His presence gives the film tension. Will Pétur accept Ada? What is his history with Maria? These questions ground the drama even when the film's gorgeous visuals are hard to accept.
As the film goes on, it simmers a little too long on the low-level tension of the situation. Jóhannson and his co-writer Sjón keep things at a surface level, putting too much focus on the skillful aesthetics and not enough into the depth of the characters. The film raises plenty of themes but doesn't do much with them. It gives the film the feeling that it would have been stronger as a short film.
Lamb is fiercely original and that quality alone makes me excited to see where this filmmaker goes. Rapace is terrific as Maria. We understand her quick acceptance of Ada, why she does what she does, and why happiness is going to elude her. The film looks fantastic thanks to cinematographer Eli Erenson. The farm has an eerie quality to it, laced in fog. All that style and WTF-ness can't save Lamb from feeling too slight but it does make it a hard film to forget.