Beyond whatever individual talents they may or may not have, Icelandic filmmakers possess a distinct advantage over many of their peers elsewhere. That would be the breathtaking scenery of their island home. Planet Earth is certainly filled with natural wonders that the human race seems keen to either photograph or destroy, so it’s not as if Iceland is unique in sublime beauty, yet somehow its relatively small size makes the glacial peaks, valleys, lakes and more seem especially imposing. To set a story about people vs. nature there offers a visual background that can telegraph meaning without the need for dialogue. The flora and fauna exist, we exist, and all survive in perfect harmony…until they don’t.
In Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut feature, Lamb, the director uses the wonders of his homeland to set the stage for what becomes an epic struggle between forces unevenly matched. Better yet, he fools us for most of the movie with a narrative centered on two protagonists not nearly in as much control as they imagine. A married couple, who lost a child a while ago, find themselves suddenly gifted with the unexpected arrival of a strange new infant. That’s not entirely true, as they in fact steal the child from her rightful parents. But where grief knows no bounds, so does behavior lack boundaries, and a transgression once enacted is hard to disown. We reap what we sow, especially on a farm.
María (Noomi Rapace, The Secrets We Keep) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, The Swan) live a peaceful, isolated existence to the north, tending to their land and livestock, which consists mostly of sheep. This is no sequel or remake of Grímur Hákonarson’s 2015 Rams, however, even if the two stories occasionally share some similar aesthetics. No, this property is problem-free, husband and wife performing their duties in a happy equilibrium. Jóhannsson spends quite a lot of time on the quotidian duties of the place, the more to catch us unawares when things take a turn for the bizarre. Still, in an opening sequence, set to Christmas music, a pregnant ewe collapses, presaging the surreal developments to come. It’s a miracle, of sorts.
Both posters hint at the mystery, and the trailer gives away a little more, yet I hesitate to ruin all the surprises within. A child is born, a literal Lamb of God, and María and Ingvar mistake this glorious offering as theirs for the taking. Hubris and arrogance must be paid back, though for a quite a while there is joy in their world. Not even the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Agnes Joy) can entirely ruin the familial bliss. But Mother Nature will have its way, sometimes brutally.
Jóhannsson bides his time, filling his frames with the grandeur of the landscapes and the minutiae of the farmwork. Rapace and Guðnason make a powerful on-screen team, their expressions and mannerisms perfectly in sync. Ultimately, the tale may not entirely hold together, despite impressive mise-en-scène and cinematography, but that hardly detracts from the twisted magic of it all. If our heyday as a species is, indeed, to end soon, then let us go out exercising our imagination in wild flights of fancy such as those we see here.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
A24; Valdimar Jóhannsson; Lamb film review