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‘Lamb’ is weird, even by A24 standards, but also haunting and beautiful

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

It’s devilishly difficult to write about “Lamb” while at the same time skirting spoilers that would take away from the pleasure of coming into the film completely fresh. (Pleasure is not quite right: Maybe shock value mixed with a perverse sense of fear, wonder and a little eye-rolling.)

That’s true because the trailer gives away almost the whole thing. Heck, so does the poster, albeit in a very bare-bones way. I would recommend avoiding both. Maybe even stop reading this review right now, and don’t start any others. Except I’m going to try to tell why you might want to see this film.

The haunting, atmospheric feature debut of Icelandic director Valdimar Jóhannsson, who co-wrote the screenplay with the Icelandic novelist, poet and lyricist Sjon, “Lamb” is a little difficult to swallow, let alone digest, but quite easy to synopsize, at least in its basics.

Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason portray Maria and Ingvar, a childless Icelandic farm couple who develop an unusual attachment to one of their ewes’ offspring.

And that’s all you’re going to get out of me about the plot, which harnesses the same blend of contemporary life and Nordic folklore to tell a tale of surprising emotional resonance as the Swedish films “Border” (about trolls) and the vampire tale “Let the Right One In.”

It’s a little frightening and a lot atmospheric, in other words. Johannsson has a way of imbuing everything – animate and inanimate, even an empty doorway – with a kind of living, breathing spirit.

The performance of Maria and Ingvar’s Icelandic border collie (called, simply enough, Dog) earned a posthumous Palm Dog award for the late canine actor Panda at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in an annual alternative award category that has been given out for 20 years in honoring man’s best friend on screen.

Panda’s screen presence is soulful yet earthy, as is the acting of Rapace and Gudnason, who manage to remain grounded and believable despite what they have been tasked with doing with a straight face.

Their sheep, on the other hand, are a little creepy and otherworldly in the manner of the billy goat Black Phillip from Robert Eggers’s similarly moody and supernatural “The Witch.” So what happens?

Life on a remote, rural farm, one nowhere near the big city of Reykjavik – what can I tell you? It’s gorgeous and shrouded by mist. Chores get done. Meals are shared. Igvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a slacker former rocker in leather, shows up for a while, and there’s simmering sexual tension between him and Maria, which is never explained, explored or consummated.

Pain is felt. Healing is sought. The three of them – OK, it’s four really, but who’s counting? – watch a televised soccer game. A family carries on. But, but, but.

Or as Petur puts it, when he discovers the central relationship at the heart of the film: “What the (bleep) is this?” “Lamb” is weird and disturbing, even by the standards of the movie’s indie distributor, A24, which is known for its eclectic and at times unsettling content.

But it’s also strangely beautiful. It’s not the deepest thing in the world. It’s a fairy tale, simply put (and if you’ve read many of them, you know they can be dark). Consider yourself forewarned. And the movie – its sights best unseen beforehand – recommended.

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