'Lamb' review: An atmospheric Nordic import finds terror in the barnyard
For long moments nothing much happens in Lamb, an Icelandic enigma that comes wrapped in sheep wool and endless Arctic light: It's just a couple on their remote rural homestead, laconically carrying out the daily work of farming and feeding and wearing well-knit sweaters. But there's a heaviness around the pair — Maria (Noomi Rapace) moves through her chores like they're a penance; Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) cries quietly sometimes on his tractor — and a collection of small crosses in a graveyard on the hill that speaks to some deeper, more primal kind of loss.
Until the day a ewe gives birth in the barn and the couple stare at each other, astonished. Soon the little lamb is living in their home like any long-awaited newborn: swaddled, bottle-fed, adored. Director Valdimar Jóhannsson doesn't reveal the physical specifics of why that is for a while, or many other details at all; the amount of dialogue contained in the first 20 minutes could probably fit on a napkin, double-spaced. Instead he mostly lets the camera speak and sweep across the landscape: the crackle of a transistor radio, shafts of white midnight sun moving across an empty bedroom, the rolling grass and misty snow-patched hills that seem mystically shorn of any other living humans.
The change in the house, though, is palpable: Suddenly there's ease, even real happiness, where there used to be sadness and silence. It's also clear that the lamb-child, no matter how many cute gum boots they dress it up in or how sweetly it naps in its crib, is by no means ordinary — though that hardly seems to matter until Pétur's brother (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) stumbles in from Reykjavik, an accidental witness to their odd new domesticity. Ingvar, who looks like he lives on cracked black leather and cigarettes, isn't the kind of guy to judge an alternative lifestyle, but he can't help but show his disbelief. Are they really trying to pretend this animal is part of the family?
The arrival of someone so grounded in the outside world alters the emotional temperature almost immediately (clearly there's some history there, particularly between him and Maria), which Jóhannsson plays out in spare, carefully calibrated scenes. Ingvar's presence opens up the movie in other ways too, even allowing a little levity in. Still, there's something ugly humming underneath: the quiet foreboding of a gothic fairy tale whose rules do not portend an easy ending. In fact, the final scenes are a wallop; too walloping, maybe, in that they raise a lot more questions than Lamb can or wants to answer. But the movie's stark Nordic mood and obscure mystery are as coolly immersive as nearly anything on screen this year — and in the hammy world of supernatural horror, that ambiguity alone feels like a small, spooky gift. Grade: B+
Lamb, which premiered in June at the Cannes Film Festival, is out in theaters Oct. 8.
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