A parable about parenting and a grim fairytale about grief and the Natural Order of Things, “Lamb” might be the oddest film you settle in for this year.
Special effects technician turned director Valdimar Jóhannsson conjures up an Icelandic story both bizarre and familiar, a piece of folklore both ancient and creepily current. It’s a gloomy, provocative tone poem of life, death, fog and sheep.
This Swedish/Norwegian/Polish production is about a farm couple (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) as unchanging as the overcast skies on their corner of the coast. So entrenched are their routines — tending sheep and the gear it takes to run the farm — that they don’t talk a lot.
Their first words are downbeat lunchtime banter about a news story about the possibilities of time travel.
“I like it fine in the here and now,” Ingvar says, shutting down that chat.
“This year is better than last year” Maria says, trying again later.
“Which makes it better than the year before,” he says, shutting that down as well.
But as they busy themselves helping their ewes give birth in the barn, one lamb’s difficult arrival gives them pause. They exchange a look. And the next thing we know, Maria is hand feeding it and tucking it into a metal tub converted to a bed in their bedroom.
Ingvar? He seems to ponder this for a bit, and then fetch a baby’s crib out of storage. “Ada” is going to be sleeping in their room, long term. Ada will be joining them for meals.
Something was missing from their lives, possibly taken from them. And now they have a replacement.
But the unease we feel about all this is compounded by memories of the film’s opening scene. Something taking growling breaths stalking through the fog, scaring off a herd of ponies and getting the wide-eyed, panicked attention of the sheep in the barn.
The trusty sheep dog growls and whines, expressing his own unease, and not just as this odd living arrangement his people have settled into.
And that ewe bleating at their window? You can guess whose birth mother she is.
It takes an untimely visit from Ingmar’s musician-brother (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) to broach the subject of this New Normal his brother and sister-in-law have adopted, that includes reading bedtime stories and taking baths with Ada.
They’re “playing house with that animal,” and need reminding. “It’s not a child!”
You have to get past the bizarre premise and shed any notion that what you’re seeing is a conventional horror movie and accept “Lamb” on its own terms, the way Maria and Ingvar expect brother Pétur to accept their “blessing.”
Jóhannsson maintains a chilling mood even as the viewer runs through every fable in our collective memory and figures out where this is going.
Only we don’t. Not entirely. The script’s surprises are mostly subtle, its “twists” just to the left or right of our expectations about how this “unnatural” tale plays out.
The acting, too, is subtle — reserved. Whatever this trio work out between them, it probably won’t involve shouting or shooting. Then again…
That understatement and the lack of big frights make “Lamb” a chiller you appreciate more than embrace, ponder more than wholly understand.
Whatever transpires or is left unexplained, Jóhannsson never loses track of the mood he sets out to establish, that of a frosty folk tale that suggests that not everything we do to cope with grief is healthy, acceptable and should be dressed up as a little girl.
Rating: R for strong bloody images, sexuality/nudity.
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Credits: Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, scripted by Sjón and Valdimar Jóhannsson. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:46