Make no mistake: 'Lamb'' is not a horror film, even if the promotional material would have audiences believing otherwise. Instead, it's an absurd yet enjoyable folklore tale that never quite gets as weird as it can or should, keeping its cards unnaturally close to its chest and driving its audience crazy in the process.
María (Noomi Rapace, 'The Secrets We Keep') and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, 'Woman at War') are an isolated farming couple in the rolling Icelandic hills (literally isolated - the film goes out of its way to show how very stranded they are). The minimal dialogue in the first act of the film makes it very clear this is a relationship on the rocks; conversationally, they're at dead-end musings about time travel, an unidentified wedge eating away at their communication. Somehow, as if nature herself heard their silent pleas, one of their sheep gives birth to a most peculiar creature, a not-quite-clear splice of sheep and human - I would avoid trailers to keep this reveal as much of a surprise as possible. Ada perfectly fits into María's and Ingvar's lives as if they had been waiting for her, welcoming her into an unused crib and children's clothes from their storage. However, when Ingvar's wildcard brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, 'Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga'), appears on their doorstep, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know the peace of their idyllic family unit won't last.
By far the most effective element of 'Lamb' is its sweeping cinematography; populated with the most extreme wide shots of too-green hills covered is mysterious mist, there's no escaping the exile that drives María and Ingvar to take Ada in and raise her as their own child. It also raises far more questions about what exists beyond the misty hills than the film is ready to answer just yet; 'Lamb' utilises a super-minimalist filmmaking approach, a slow burn for the ages that relies on moments of sudden shock to keep the audience on edge. This even extends to the reveal of Ada herself, in an abrupt end-of-scene moment rather than one with a grand build-up. It may take a few beats, but once you're on the film's wavelength, the experience becomes far more rewarding. First-time writer/director Valdimar Jóhannsson is acutely aware of the story's inherent ridiculousness, and his refusal to play it as anything but dead straight only increases the absurdity. This works to a point; everything, right down to the dialogue, is so matter-of-fact that it's clear the film has no intention of dropping its bleak, humourless approach. We know the other shoe will inevitably drop, and the wait is fun but unbearable.
It's admirable just how many ideas are competing for your attention during the film, but only if you're paying enough attention to find them. This is primarily a story of how grief-driven selfishness is not a victimless act, but there are also themes of eco-terrorism, Christianity and destruction peppered in so subtly that one might miss them if they blink at the wrong time. It's a shame, because there's plenty of time and room in the film to give them all equal attention. This is a film that revels in negative space, to the point where the audience is required to fill in that many blanks they could be considered part of 'Lamb's' writing team. By the time the insane twist shows its hand (a moment sure to be plastered all over social media the moment the film reaches a wide audience), it's extremely unclear why it took so long to get there; halving the run time wouldn't sacrifice any of the film's themes or plot. In fact, I spent most of my viewing experience thinking about such adjustments that not only would've improved the experience, but elevated the tone it's trying to establish. Ada is brought to life with puppetry and garish CGI (an unintentional contribution to the film's oddball vibes), but one can't help but imagine how much more ridiculous Ada would look if Jóhannsson had taken the 'Annette' route and used an actual puppet in her place. This would play right into the off-kilter relationship of the film's gorgeous setting and this less-than-natural family union, the friction of acres of empty space surrounding the unnaturally crammed sheep in María's and Ingvar's barn. Additionally, Pétur is used as the audience stand-in to highlight the preposterousness of María's and Ingvar's predicament, but he gets caught up in an all-too-unnecessary infidelity subplot for his character to be of any real use.
It may take a few beats, but once you're on 'Lamb's wavelength, the experience becomes far more rewarding.
Jóhannsson certainly has ambition, and bagging auteur extraordinaire Béla Tarr ('The Turin Horse') as a producer is no doubt a major win for his future in the industry. Despite not quite being sure how to effectively build the unique mood it wants to strike, 'Lamb' suggests that he has the talent to swing for the fences in future eerie genre outings. If this is where he's starting, it certainly seems that the only way is up.