Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
A24 has been behind some of the best films of the decade--Moonlight, Lady Bird, Minari. But the company has also gained a reputation for psychologically rich horror like The Witch and Hereditary. The company’s recent release, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s directorial debut Lamb, is a folklore-tinged film that doesn’t neatly fit into either category. Winner of the Prize of Originality in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition, Lamb derives much of its appeal—along with its frustrations—from its gleeful disregard for conventional categories like genre and species.
Lamb stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as a childless couple running a remote sheep farm in Iceland. Cinematographer Eli Arenson’s work is stunning, and the indigo-tinged shots of hoary sheep and icy landscapes contribute much to the film’s slowly creeping sense of dread. But these visions are ancillary to the narrative, which is built on scenes of isolated farm life punctuated by moments of sheer absurdity. When one of their ewes gives birth to a hybrid human-sheep baby, María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guðnason) immediately adopt her and name her Ada, in memory of a child they lost. Jóhannsson hints at Ada’s unique form long before the reveal, but the film’s slow build cannot adequately prepare audiences for the visual impact of Ada, whose body comprises a lamb’s head and arms with human legs and buttocks.
To a certain extent, Lamb is a tale grounded in motherhood. Overwhelmed by grief, María’s nearly wordless interactions with her husband Ingvar (Guðnason) mirror those with the sheep she tends. It is only when Ada arrives that she returns to life. In one intimate scene, María weaves a crown of flowers and lovingly places it on Ada’s head. Yet as tenderly as she feels towards Ada, her sentiments do not extend to Ada’s birth mother, who relentlessly follows her and calls to Ada from outside their home. Angered by the nameless ewe’s persistence, María shoots her point-blank.
María’s actions lend insight into the nature of her and Ingvar’s relationship with Ada. Despite their attachment to Ada, she—like her fellow sheep—exists to serve their needs, to comfort them. María never stops to question if she is the better mother for Ada. She simply assumes that any half-human creature would choose to live among humans. And to be fair, who wouldn’t, if the only other option was to spend life captive and among companions who will ultimately be sent to slaughter?
Despite its loose classification as a horror film, Lamb eschews the tropes common to the genre’s treatment of human-animal hybrids. Unlike the nightmarish science fiction of The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Fly, no mad scientists are involved; hybridity is a function of nature. Nor is Ada a monster in the tradition of werewolves and wendigos, as Lamb largely denies the primal fears about our animal natures that have made horror films so compelling. In doing so, it reflects beliefs about the wildlife that underlie popular trends like Tiger King and Burmese pythons: “Wild animals aren't really wild, they make great pets!”
Lamb similarly resists psychological interpretation. Despite Jóhannsson’s slow reveal of Ada, there is little to suggest that Ada’s hybridity is a projection of María's grief, that Ada is a lamb María and Ingvar simply treat as a human. Jóhannsson has taken great pains to craft Ada from an amalgamation of child actors, sheep, puppetry, and CGI. Shots of Ada riding a tractor, walking upright—her hooves peeping out from her jacket sleeves—and otherwise interacting with her fully human counterparts occur with such frequency throughout the film that it is impossible to see her as anything but as who and what María sees. Despite the surreal and often comic nature of these moments, they remind us that the “logic” of Lamb is not far removed from the very real phenomena of emotional support pigs and turkeys.
Lamb ultimately reflects our own illogically bifurcated feelings about animals writ large. It is easy to love another when engaging on our own terms—and even more so when that other is a cute and cuddly herbivore. Focus on the assistance animals, zoo ambassadors, and wildlife rescues, and not only will speciesism appear to be going the way of other isms, but loving others will seem to offer the key to making us better humans. If only it were so simple.
There is a chilling scene where Ada stares at a photograph of a large flock of sheep. The camera lingers on her, lingering over the image. At that moment we fully apprehend her isolation and horror. While it is effortless to love the one, it is difficult even to care about the many. Lamb doesn't aspire to critique neoliberalism or animal agriculture, but it does include a twist, warning that our callous disregard for our animal others will not pass without a reckoning.
— Jacqueline Sadashige