This year has been a weird one for horror films, with projects like M. Night Shyamalan’s Old and Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor grabbing the headlines. From this ambiguous and disparate collection, Valdimar Jóhannsson has emerged with his debut feature Lamb which says a lot about the current state of horror films that are trying to break out of the regurgitated and over-exploited tropes of the genre.
Divided into distinct chapters, Lamb is an intense cinematic experience that draws the audience into a dangerously isolated world with different rules of logic. Set in the pristine rural world of Iceland, the film revolves around a couple who own a farm in the middle of nowhere. One of the most beautiful elements of Lamb is Eli Arenson’s gorgeously paced, flowing cinematography. From the opening sequence itself, the audience is aware that they are in for an unsettling ride as the snow and swirling darkness engulf them.
Jóhannsson establishes a familiar framework through visions of pastoral life, documenting the mundane routines of farmers. While attending to the delivery of pregnant sheep, the farming couple discovers that one of the animals has given birth to something that defies explanations. Swaddled like the baby from Eraserhead, we suspect that this infant is at the core of Lamb’s experiments with the horror genre and our suspicions turn out to be absolutely correct.
I don’t think anybody who saw the film thought it was a revelation when it was revealed that the sheep had given birth to a human-animal hybrid, that’s not what Lamb relies on at all. Instead, Jóhannsson shows us how to masterfully treat the existence of the Uncanny Other within the structures of reality. Neither Ingvar nor his wife Maria (played by Noomi Rapace) feel like there is really anything to discuss, with Maria growing extremely attached to the half-human child after having lost her own.
Produced by Béla Tarr, Lamb is an extremely atmospheric project which uses the logic of causality to explain its own surreal universe. Jóhannsson never makes the mistake that other horror filmmakers are guilty of, even Alfred Hitchcock. He confronts the audience with a stubborn refusal to explain anything, insisting that what is being shown is all there is to it and the real mystery is our own visceral reactions to the creature on screen.
This sense of an alternate reality is punctured by Ingvar’s brother Pétur who infiltrates their world and passes judgement on the bizarre baby, something that hadn’t really happened yet. A brilliant addition to the narrative arc, the director uses unsaid emotions and silence to create conflicts within the viewer’s mind, leading us to question whether we can really subject something that exists outside the domains of our morality to our own restricted moral lenses.
Lamb is a competent commentary on the horrors of colonialism, ecocriticism and a fascinating exploration of the development of individual identity in child psychology until it isn’t. The film had the potential to be one of the finest works of the year but it collapses under the weight of its own investigations.
Right up till the very end, Lamb worked so well because it was perfectly surreal – in accordance with André Breton’s theory that surrealism is the “perfect resolution” between the contradictory states of dream and reality. Unfortunately, Lamb destroys its own precarious surreal balance by adding unnecessary elements that immediately break the audience’s complete immersion.