If movies had smells, “Lamb” would reek of wet wool and dry hay, icy mist and animal breath. Bathed in the sort of unforgiving, glacial light that has actresses begging for a pink filter, this atmospheric debut feature from Valdimar Johannsson plays like a folk tale and thrums like a horror movie.
Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) are a childless couple who run an isolated sheep farm in rural Iceland. It’s lambing season, and a mysterious, initially unexplained melancholy hangs over the couple’s calm labors. When a pregnant ewe delivers something that’s neither man nor beast — a tiny hybrid, revealed to us only gradually — Maria and Ingvar are alarmingly unfazed, swaddling the creature and installing it in a crib in their bedroom. They name it Ada.
Slow-moving and inarguably nutty, “Lamb” nevertheless wields its atavistic power with the straightest of faces, helped in no small measure by an Oscar-worthy cast of farm animals. (The determination of Ada’s real mother to reunite with her offspring is downright chilling.) With deadpan skill, Johannsson and his fellow writer, the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjon, spin an ominous warning about the danger of seeking happiness through delusion — a peril that Ingvar’s black-sheep brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), arriving for a visit, tries unsuccessfully to avert. And as the movie creeps toward its shockingly appropriate climax, the filmmakers’ grip on tone is almost uncanny.
Relishing the wild beauty of the location, the fantastic cinematographer Eli Arenson eyes foggy fields and frightened horses with unruffled awe. When he turns his camera on Ada (an impressive blend of actors, animals, puppetry and CGI), the sight is at once ludicrous and strangely touching. After all, doesn’t every parent think their child is perfect?
Rated R for matricide, patricide and kidnapping. In Icelandic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters.
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