The sheep in Lamb, an unnerving new film from Iceland, aren’t screaming but they sure look spooked, and as time will prove, they have good reason to be. Farm couple Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) care for their animals tenderly but fail to notice the creepy warning stares coming from their livestock. They’re distracted, it seems, by an unnamed grief. Or maybe -grief or not- they’re simply clueless humans.
Conjuring their own Nordic folk tale, first-time writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson and his co-writer, the frequent Björk collaborator known as Sjón, have constructed a film spare in dialogue and backstory but dense with intricately lain surprises, not a one of which should be revealed in a movie review.
The film’s trailer and poster reveal the basic outline: one day, a ewe gives birth to a baby girl lamb whose unusual physical characteristics mark her as something more than just a lamb. Jóhannsson won’t show the baby in full for another 30 minutes of screen time, but an astonished Maria and Ingvar quickly bundle it up, carry it to their bedroom and begin raising it as their own child.
They name her Ada.
Ada, we can safely reveal, is not a demon planning to lead a lamb/sheep takeover of the world, though we make no guarantees for Lamb 2 or Lamb 6: the Rebirth. Instead, Ida is revealed to be as loving as any human child Maria and Ingvar might have had. When she gets a little older, Ada makes coffee for Ingvar’s hangover and charms his wayward brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who’s initially horrified by the weird family unit his brother and his wife have formed. Pétur says nothing at first, but hours after meeting Ada finally blurts out, “What the fuck is this?”
“Happiness,” Ingvar replies, and for a good long while, all seems well for his new family until the shockingly abrupt moment when it’s not. The absurdist premise of Lamb, not to mention its wild final reveal, would be funny if it weren’t for the deeply felt work of Rapace and Gudnason, who ground the story in rich currents of emotion. Maria and Ingvar cross many lines, but only half know it. Comeuppance arrives suddenly, and violently, and it’s not so much scary as heartbreaking.