What to Watch Verdict
'Lamb' savors a second act that's good-natured animalistic oddness, but does struggle to embolden the darkness that looms.
🐑 Lamb effects are superb
🐑 Generates feelings of empathy with ease
🐑 Swings big and lands on core concepts
🐑 A whole lot of dead air in the middle
🐑 Third act holds too much conflict weight
🐑 Quiet contemplation only gets so far
Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is an Icelandic amalgam of insinuated folklore and theological damnations that is itself like an iceberg afloat, bobbing with waves, but doesn’t expand much below the surface.
It’s a surefire A24 model student — sprawling farmland isolation and quiet contemplation draws plotted comparisons to Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Jóhannsson’s collaboration with co-writer Sjón is indebted to leatherbound fables from any nation, which can stretch itself thin over an hour and 40 minutes of scenic tourism landscapes. There’s a naturalism about the obscurist narrative central to an obscene livestock miracle, but Jóhannsson’s indulgences designate stakes much like — or even less generous than — Saint Maud. Patience is a virtue, especially when such lengthy durations pass without anything more than glimpses of the titular gimmickry.
María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are humble animal herders and crop tenders who witness an ewe birth something unreal in their sheep pen. The childless couple unofficially adopts said special delivery, which they call Ada.
Here’s the skinny. María and Ingvar’s littlest Ada is human except for a lamb’s head and right leg-hoof extension. Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) first anoints Ada an unnatural beast but soon embraces the happiness both María and Ingvar share. No one asks “how,” “why” or “what” as they exist in peace, but maybe they should, lest outsiders threaten that peace.
Between Lamb, Malignant and Titane, we’re in a renaissance of high-as-hell cinematic concepts and freedoms of expression. The differentiation between titles is that Lamb is relatively tame, where Malignant and Titane throttle forward without speed limits. Some might say unprovoked?
Jóhannsson lays alarmist groundwork like the off-camera sensation of invasive eyes and teases grief’s void as María visits a grave with "Ada" written on it — perhaps a deceased kin to the giddy, frolicking Ada we are introduced to. Storytelling execution favors the ambiguity of detailing no motivations aloud, instead focusing on the familial bliss between parents who’ve been afforded a second chance. Romance, laughter and tenderness illuminate character faces and the otherwise drab decor. Ingvar separates potatoes on the back of a tractor, María serves meaty spaghetti dishes and Uncle Pétur teaches fishing lessons — it’s a carefree and admittedly adorable cinematic experience that appreciates smaller, intimate moments.
The problem becomes whether or not this longstanding aversion to consequences — except one who is punished needlessly and mercilessly — sustains miraculous intrigue that enhances an inevitable payoff.
Ada, brimming with curiosity and sheepishness, is never the issue. I’d die for Ada, who wiggle-sways to Pétur’s percussion solo or scampers a childlike jubilance as any toddler explores the world’s unknowns for the first time. Digital animators execute woolen, transformative effects that make interactions plausible, as María places a sunshine-yellow floral crown atop her dearest May Queen. Ingvar’s drunken cuddle slumber with Ada, the wee lamb’s head rising and dropping as Ingvar breathes heavily liquored gasps, is a heart-melting picture of parental bonds. Eli Arenson’s cinematography composes magnificent shots that continually frame Ada with the same sense of wonder and inexplicability no matter what Icelandic features pop into the background (misty peaks, swaying grass fields, coastal rushes).
Alternatively, Lamb simmers about as rapidly as my grandmother’s eight-hour Sunday gravy. Jóhannsson’s investment around Ada remains tied to María and Ingvar’s ordinary acceptance of Ada's birth. “The unexpected prospect of family life brings them much joy, before ultimately destroying them,” states an IMDb synopsis that misrepresents the balance of destruction to euphoria.
Lamb struggles as third-act dependent sledgehammers have prior— the necessity of dull flames for so flippin’ long lulls suspense and corrodes whatever nastiness awaits the final minutes (sometimes seconds). Clues retain their anonymity, whether glassy pupil reflections or faint exhales, yet these teases are senselessly soft. Jóhannsson ascribes more pleasantness and aloofness that meanders around rustic nothingness outside a single drunken handball watch party. Then, wham — a dire finale crashes into a brick wall of credits.
There’s an argument to be made about poetic license and literary influences that provoke audience imaginations. Fill in the blanks, enhance your Lamb experience. I’d counter that a smidge more conflict would urge deeper connections; Ada’s excitable grunts and darling fitted raincoat wear their welcome.
As I said, Lamb is about as “A24” as they come these days. That’s a buzzword descriptor, I’ll admit, but there’s no diverging from the easiest classifier. Jóhannsson hatches a madcap idea but seemingly challenges himself to strip any zaniness, weirdness or unbelievability as Ada’s shocking reveal only begets calmness. It’s a rather precious thematic twist, and visually Lamb understands postcard appeal that runs the gamut of wildlife photography signatures — I’m just left feeling like there’s entirely too much second act fluffery versus a kneecapped climactic finish. Kudos to the actors who ground the ungroundable and empower Ada’s infantile charms, shouldering the unevenness that eventually shows in darkness that will be — for some — too brief, too forgotten and too late.
Lamb will be released exclusively in theaters starting Oct. 8.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.