Going to the movies was one of those pre-pandemic habits I’d bring up in answer to friends’ questions about what I’d missed during pandemic lockdowns. Once theaters opened up again earlier this year, the move to a new home and the birth of my daughter prolonged the delay of my resumption of the familiar encounter with the big screen. So it was with great anticipation and a sense that only some egregious offense could spoil the enjoyment of heading back to the theater this week for the evening screening of Lamb, the new Icelandic film that won the Prize of Originality at Cannes. Even the stale popcorn and diluted soda had their own charm. The movie, however, was awful. Plot spoilers will abound here—though there’s not much of a plot to spoil. Billed as a dark-humored horror film, Lamb is no more a work of funny horror than Iceland is a nation in North America.
What’s most remarkable about Lamb, the debut from director Valdimar Jóhannsson, is that the script, co-written by Jóhannsson and the poet Sjón, was the final result of eight years of fine tuning. Jóhannsson himself seems surprised that a script even exists, as he explained to one interviewer, after years of conversations driven by an evolving mood board filled with images of animals and rural scenes, "[Sjón and I] had a lot of paintings and photos that we basically created the story around somehow.”
Potato farmers with a flock of sheep, María (played by The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace), and her husband, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), say nothing to one another while they carry out their daily chores on an isolated farm on a stretch of beautiful Icelandic countryside. Lambs are fed, ground is raked, heavy objects are moved. Ten minutes of silence is broken by a breakfast conversation of a report in the newspaper that time travel is now theoretically possible, a vague almost meaningless introduction to the idea that this film exists in a place of suspended disbelief.
The film’s intended tension comes from the couple’s lack of skepticism when one of their sheep gives birth to a lamb that is special. Viewers are left in the dark about what’s unusual about the lamb—we just assume its elevated status when they bring it into their home, feed it from a bottle, and swaddle it in a crib that Ingvar has taken out of storage in the barn. With no actual explication of the couple’s past, or their emotional state, or what anything means to them, no sense of what they’re thinking, no conversation or cinematic devices to convey meaningful information beyond the vaguely menacing soundtrack and slow pans of the foggy countryside, the couple’s reaction to the arrival of this baby animal seems to be propelled by the suggestion of the stored crib, which may or may not be a second-degree suggestion of grief, which may or may not be driven by a third-degree suggestion that the crib was for a baby that perhaps was miscarried or stillborn or died as an infant.
Burdening all the imaginative work upon the viewer, the camera finally reveals the lamb to be a humanoid—with the head and a right hoof of a lamb and the left arm and body of a baby girl. Named Ada, the couple dresses her in the clothing of a farm girl. As she ages, she walks around the house and fields upright. She doesn’t speak, but she understands her parents, and she can turn off the radio and make herself the cereal and toast that is her diet. If there are biblical allusions at play here, they are as faint as the sound of a feather dropped into water.
There’s nothing horrific about Ada’s physical being. She’s a cute work of CGI magical realism. But the pedestrian treatment of her existence by her caretakers perpetually sours the film’s attempt to build itself into a work of atmospheric dread. The film’s first half is a failure in trying to shout and whisper at the same time. The result is quiet, but ridiculous.
Quite literally thrown into the film, then, is the film’s requisite plot turn and fourth character—Ingvar’s brother, whom we meet when he’s picked up out of the trunk of a car and tossed off the side of a dirt country road. We don’t actually know that he’s the brother, or that he might have run afoul of some creditors, until several suspense-free minutes later, after he sneaks up to the farm. Why he’s sneaking around is left unanswered (cheaply manufactured suspense, perhaps?), but it gives him the chance to spy on María, who has grown tired of the mother sheep that birthed Ada cooing under the window of Ada’s crib, trying to rescue the child that is rightfully hers. The brother watches from behind a stone wall as María stands over Ada’s mother with a rifle and unceremoniously shoots a bullet into her skull.
After a night sleeping on the couch in the barn, the brother, Pétur, is warmly greeted by the couple and seated at the breakfast table, where he takes the place of the viewer and looks upon the walking lamb child with politely contained shock and confusion. When he gets a moment to confer with Ingvar, he delivers the movie’s only funny line (this might be why it’s advertised as a horror-comedy).
“What the fuck is this?” He asks.
“Happiness,” Ingvar tells him.
But Pétur is not having it, and for the next 30 minutes, he tries to persuade the adoptive parents that something is wrong here. He fails in his effort, just as he fails in the effort to seduce María, who has some kind of romantic past with him—a one-night stand, a relationship, it’s never made clear. After a night of drinking, María grows weary that Pétur will sabotage their new domestic arrangement, and tricks him into a locked storage closet. Retiring to the piano where she plays a song to drown out his plea to be released, María bangs out cheap atmosphere on the keys, and the camera zooms in to the interior of the piano itself, where we watch the wool-wrapped hammers strike the piano strings. But this reference to lamb’s wool doesn’t mean anything beyond its own empty symbolism. The chintzy drama and lingering camerawork imbue this moment with the kind of grandiose connective sequencing more apt for a dorm room bong session than a film that people have paid actual money to see.
For the sake of getting at what elevates this movie from merely tedious shlock into a work foul enough to warrant critical hostility, let’s move to the film’s twist ending. After María has shuttled Pétur off to the bus, so that he, like Ada’s mother, can no longer pose a threat to her family, the movie pares itself down to its three main characters and accelerates, or rather, the music becomes more intense. On a walk through the possibly menacing countryside, Ada and Ingvar plod along until Ingvar is suddenly shot in the neck by a bullet. The perpetrator of this shooting turns out to be Ada’s biological father, a humanoid like her, adult-sized, with the body of a muscular man, one arm, one hoof, and the head of an intimidating ram.
Standing over Ingvar as he bleeds to death, Ram Man pulls Ada off the dying man and walks her off into the fog-covered fields, presumably to raise her himself. Rushing to the sound of the gunshot, María comes upon her dying husband. Distraught, María cradles him in her arms. For a brief moment, she looks off into the distance, and an obvious tranquility falls over her face. Though upset over the impending death of her husband, the suggestion (something like the film’s 30th) is that she’s 1) aware Ada is OK and presumably with her rightful family and 2) has accepted her husband’s demise.
That all of this is excruciatingly vague has been the primary theme of the film’s commercial promotion in the U.S., and the filmmakers have gone to unusual lengths to offer interpretations and insight into what it all means.
Something like a riff on Icelandic folktales, myths, and Christmas legends, Jóhannsson and Rapace have explained that the film is more of a loose gathering of associations than an actual interpretation or expansion of a fixed narrative. “Religious [myths] and folk tales, they are so related,” Jóhannsson told one reporter about how he intertwined and borrowed from the two genres. Of the film’s magical walking lamb, Rapace said “she’s very much a vehicle and a canvas. She’s the blank space you fill with what you need her to be.” Similarly empty of a fixed meaning, Rapace explained that Ram Man is whatever you want him to be. “Is he nature? Or the devil? Or karma?”
The answer, Jóhannsson has said, is that the ending “can stand for so many things … Even I’ve changed my mind after watching the film so often.” But even as Rapace is open to her director’s openness, she has a more conclusive read on what the ending signifies for the character she portrayed.
Still grieving from the loss of the human child/crib occupant, María takes Ada from the mother sheep even though she doesn’t belong to her. “We basically steal her and I shoot her mom! I think María knows that that happiness is a short chapter, that it’s borrowed time. That’s why she didn’t run after [Ada]—she knew that she had it coming somehow,” Rapace said, seemingly unaware that what she’s arguing, and what the film seems to confirm, is that María is processing her grief with a violent logic that maligns the already frail notion of nature “correcting” itself. Lacking the requisite self-awareness, the film does not address why María accommodates her emotional distress with the murder of Ada’s innocent biological mother, or that the cost of the brief happiness María felt as a new mother is the retaliatory murder of her husband. There is no morality or countermorality here, as an attempt at coherent storytelling would require—just the emptiness of the void, and boredom.
Sean P. Cooper is a staff writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll, the magazine’s afternoon newsletter. His first book, about an unsolved murder and the 1980s farming crisis, is forthcoming from Penguin.