Lamb so envelopes you in its own grammar and disposition that viewers dare not question the way it simply takes over and leads them exactly where it wants to go. But there is no hand-holding in Lamb. No over-explanation, or unnecessary shots. At just over an hour and forty minutes in length, each moment feels deliberately crafted. If you go to the bathroom, or reach to pick up a bag of candy, you might miss something. The precision of Lamb makes it hard to believe it is director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut feature.
The film takes place in Jóhannsson’s home country of Iceland. Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason play a married pair of farmers, María and Ingvar, and the film opens opens with shots of the titular creatures. We watch the sheep interact, bleat, eat, and stare out into the winter night. From there, the film, co-written by Jóhannsson and Icelandic poet Sjón, sets off on a plot that is nothing less than absurd.
One day, María and Ingvar assist one of their sheep as she gives birth. After the lamb emerges from the womb, María and Ingvar, visibly stirred, take the newborn inside their home. The ambiguity builds suspense, and we begin to wonder. There are small moments that hint at what may have happened. At one point, Ingvar goes to the barn and brings in a crib so that the lamb may sleep at their bedside. Why does he have this crib? Did they once have a child?
Eventually, Jóhannsson slowly begins to reveal the lamb’s body. And then we learn the truth. While the child has the head of a lamb, her body, down to her feet, is half human, half lamb. María and Ingvar name the lamb Ada and raise her as if she were their own daughter. It is beautiful and heartbreaking. When put into words, the film’s premise sounds outlandish. But with Jóhannsson’s direction, Eli Arenson’s cinematography, and the performances of Rapace and Guðnason, it all seems so real. In that sense the film feels like anti-escapism, a work so brazenly committed to its fantastical elements that we just accept it as reality.
Enough praise cannot be heaped on Rapace and Guðnason. From the film’s outset, we see they are awash in grief. And once we know of their past and desire for a new beginning with a child, how could there not be? The film opens with them cutting grass, planting crops, and birthing new lambs; they are surrounded by cycles of life that perpetually remind them of their pain and loss. There is little dialogue in the film, especially in the early moments. And rightly so. Their embodied grief comes through in each gesture, look, and movement. And once Ada enters their life, we feel their newfound happiness and shared sense of relief and hope. But Lamb is no fairytale.
Despite the happiness of the film’s protagonists and the empathy we have for them, Jóhannsson makes clear that they are no saints. Their decision to bring Ada into their home was less an adoption and more an abduction, as most human/livestock interactions are. And what makes it even more cruel is that Ada’s biological, four-legged parents live just beside her new home powerless, in a barn. Jóhannsson masterfully — and at times brutally — probes the moral dimensions of this dynamic. The way María navigates the situation will leave viewers alternately shocked, saddened, and captivated. Rapace’s performance sits with you, and it’s one of those rare instances where no matter how a character reacts and responds to the onscreen events, your empathy endures.
The only other human character of note appears in the form of Ingvar’s brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). A deadbeat, ex-musician, Pétur makes unwanted advances towards María and is a general ass. And he, more understandably, does not know how to respond after meeting his new niece.
Pétur serves an important function in the film. In a sense, he is a stand in for we in the audience. Until the point of his arrival, María and Ingvar are living in a kind of dream state, where everything is normal and happy for the first time in years. But then Pétur attempts to pop the bubble by essential asking, “What the fuck is going on?” And it’s a fair question.
What infects and overcomes María and Ingvar is not a parasite, a disease, or a ghost. It is grief and desire, both of which, like the premise of Lamb, are not always rational. The longing to pass on life and love drives María and Ingvar to accept Ada as their own child and do unthinkable things. Their impulse feels deeply human, beautiful, and horrifying — sometimes all at once. But they are not the only ones who grieve.
Jóhannsson also shows the viewer the pain of non-human beings like Ada’s birth mother. And thus Lamb becomes a film about the love and struggles that define all sentient life, not just humanity. Lamb tells the human tale of the yearning to procreate but de-centers the human. In doing so, the film respects the human condition and struggle without rendering us totally blameless. After all, we are but one species on this planet. Lamb invites us to reflect on existing in a world in which we can simultaneous suffer and perpetuate suffering. That is what makes Lamb, absurdity and all, so magnificent and so real.