I chuckled when I realized that Valdimar Jóhannsson's directorial debut feature is, in fact, a Christmas film of sorts, a conclusion unlikely to have been reached by any other film critic including those like myself eager to proclaim the wondrous film one of 2021's very best motion pictures.
There's Christmas music on the radio early on when we meet Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), a husband-and-wife whose misery is as palpable as is the desolate Icelandic farm where they spend their days plowing their land, harvesting their crops, and tending to their various creates including horses, ewes and, unsurprisingly, lambs. There appears to be no joy in these duties, though they perform them dutifully while fixing what must be fixed and communicating with one another in only the slightest of ways.
Co-written by Jóhannsson with Icelandic poet/author Sjón, Lamb is a film that I went into blindly. If I'm being completely honest, I watched it only because it was amongst my screeners sent by studio A24 for awards season consideration.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I gradually discovered Lamb to be one of my favorite films from this past year.
It is difficult to describe Lamb without giving away much of what makes it such an extraordinary film, a jarring tapestry of psychological horror, intimate family drama, nature-tinged folktale, and a film that wears within its soul the sins of Iceland's past keeping in mind that this is a nation where eugenics remains national policy despite the romanticized vision of Iceland often served up by the media. Suffice it to say that Lamb quicky became a deeply personal film for me, a film that demanded I immerse myself in my own grief and a film that challenged me to remember how even my most recent losses had influenced by behavior, relationships, decisions, and even beliefs.
All of these things are at play here.
Rapace, who grew up on a farm in Iceland, gives one of the year's best performances as Maria, a woman whose actions mask a facade of weariness and grief, rage and desperation. D.P. Eli Erenson's lens practically drowns us in the Icelandic fog with an almost mystical quality reminiscent of the best of Bela Tarr who, as it would happen, is an executive producer on the film. We meet Maria and we can feel that something isn't quite right, though it could just as easily be the years of isolation in this picturesque yet unforgiving landscape where nothing is easy and where everything is potentially a menace.
It's not particularly unnerving when Maria becomes particularly nurturing toward one particular newborn lamb, Ada, though the degree to which this nurturing takes place unquestionably piques our curiosity. Jóhannsson's gentle pacing and often silent scenes has created a sense of normalcy that isn't easily shattered no matter how much it becomes apparent that there is more going on with Maria than we first believed. She is, of course, joined by Ingvar and the two tender souls posssess such a sweetness about Ada that one is stuck somewhere between "creepy" and "aww, how sweet."
It is only when Ingvar's brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives that there appear to be cracks in the sense of normalcy, gently parenting souls suddenly confronted by a sort of "WTF is going on here?"
I can't imagine a studio other than A24 releasing Lamb and doing the film justice. Indeed, even as I proclaim the film to be one of the year's best I also acknowledge it's such an absurd, unwieldy little creature that I can easily imagine most of my friends looking at me and asking "WTF are we watching?"
We're watching truth. I mean, sure, perhaps it's truth expressed unusually but it's no less truth. Jóhannsson clearly trusts his audience to interpret the film for themselves, each scene brought to life with remarkable precision and each of the film's sparse words meaningful to everything else that unfolds. For me, I suppose, Lamb is at its essence a film about birth and healing, loss and the natural cycles of life. There's a Nordic atmospheric melancholy that exists somewhere between a hug and a suffocating squeeze, a tension that builds even as the presence of Ada brings a levity and lightness this home has long been missing.
Yet, there is more here. The more threatens to derail the film but never does as Jóhannsson knows just how much to reveal and when to reveal it. Rest assured that this folktale promises nothing in the way of a fairytale ending and, in fact, Lamb possesses one of the year's most walloping of endings that satisfies narratively and leaves you to answer the inevitable questions yourself.
There is so much more I could say. There's so much more I want to say. However, Lamb is a film best experienced rather than described. It's a masterfully visual film that is easily understood, even in silence, and it's a film brought vividly and unforgettably to life by its leading trio and by Rapace's mesmerizing work here.
Easily one of 2021's best and most emotionally honest films, Lamb may very well be one of the year's most unusual moviegoing experiences but in the hands of Noomi Rapace it's one you won't easily forget.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic