A24’s Lamb and the Limits of Non-Human Horror

Illustrated by Anasthasia Shilov

In the near-decade since its inception, film production studio A24 has churned out everything from timely biopics (Amy) to dramas dripping with Oscar noms (Moonlight, Lady Bird). But recent years have seen the studio come to be perhaps best-known as a wellspring of deliciously unnerving horrors and innovative psychological thrillers. Think Anya Taylor-Joy being assailed by Satan in ram form in 2016’s The Witch, or Robert Pattinson’s Promethean demise in 2019’s The Lighthouse​​ (and bonus points if you can make it through both of those films without subtitles, because, geez). Then, of course, there’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), Ari Aster’s first two directorial efforts and arguably the most well-known fixtures in A24’s young but nevertheless legitimate reputation as a manufacturer of the macabre.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the focal point of last month’s Lamb, one of A24’s newest offerings, is—you guessed it—a conceptually grotesque but undeniably adorable lamb-human hybrid named Ada. Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and co-written by Jóhannsson and frequent Björk collaborator Sjón, Lamb follows Icelandic couple María and Ingvar, both farmers, while they raise Ada as their child in the aftermath of their very human daughter, who bore the same name, being stillborn. Complicating their efforts is Ada’s biological mother, an unassuming and decidedly non-chimeric sheep, who isn’t going to relinquish control so easily. She stands beneath Ada’s bedroom window bleating relentlessly like some sort of Icelandic alarm clock before eventually kidnapping (or reclaiming) her daughter and leading her far into the pasture, which leaves María frantic. Even after she relocates Ada, María’s desperate need for legitimate and unquestioned motherhood takes over, and she herds Ada’s biological mother out of the farmhouse to shoot her.

María’s maternal validity—and sanity—continue to be questioned, though, by Ingvar’s brother Pétur, who is visiting the farm, and with whom María previously had an affair, presumably in the midst of her grief following the death of Human Ada (OG Ada? Ada 1.0? Whatever). Pétur is profoundly disturbed by his brother’s Eldritch abomination of a daughter, and probably more than a little pissed off that his sister-in-law has now healed just enough to not want to fuck him anymore. In one scene, mirroring María’s earlier removal of the mother sheep, he leads Ada into the hills with a rifle in his other hand. But, unexpectedly, he’s too overcome by emotion to go through with it. His assassination attempt ends with the two of them snuggled in a rocking chair, sound asleep, and Pétur briefly assumes the role of a gentle uncle. Nevertheless, Pétur’s lust for his brother’s wife proves insurmountable, and his continued unwanted sexual advances drive María to ask him to leave, though not before locking him in a closet for an entire night—a tried and true method for humbling unruly men. 

Anthropomorphic lambs, extramarital affairs, fraught family histories—what’s not to love? Indeed, at its best, Lamb is an admittedly profound reflection on the afterlives of grief and how we try (and fail) to fill spaces that have been emptied. More specifically, the film asks what it means to be a mother and whether or not that title remains even when one’s child does not. And while it’s an overstatement to say that Lamb asks us what it is to be human, it’s certainly a meditation on the extent to which we should and are willing to allow the Other into our lives. (“It’s not a child,” Pétur says to Ingvar early in the film, “it’s an animal.” Later, even to Pétur, that distinction is unimportant.)

In her dazzling and heart-wrenching turn as María, Noomi Rapace begs tirelessly for answers to all these questions. It’s her performance that makes Lamb’s good moments great and keeps its bad moments from being utterly awful. The film’s script is sparse, but Rapace’s María is undeniably bogged down by grief in both speech and silence. I’d argue it’s quite a feat, in a movie with a Beanie Baby knock-off as its poster child, to keep an audience from ever forgetting what they’re really witnessing: a woman wading through incomprehensible loss.

To that end, Lamb’s skeletal script is sometimes effective: things are not just quiet, they’re too quiet. There should be a baby crying or a mobile whirring or toy blocks clattering to the ground, but there isn’t. There never is. Even Ada’s half-human whimperings feel insufficient. Lamb is as much narrative film as it is still life, as it is portrait of a cavern. Artistically, there’s something there. But speaking in terms of the film’s (equally important) baseline watchability, one can only endure so much Nordic silence. Those pretty Icelandic hills go on forever and then some—and it gets old fast.

Still, I might be able to sit in that silence—not happily, but contentedly—if it weren’t for the film’s baffling conclusion. Now, sure: the existence of a lamb-infant hybrid is imbued with the implied existence of whatever that hybrid becomes when it grows up. But some things are better left to the imagination, and one of those things is undoubtedly the six-foot-tall, inexplicably buff ram-man who appears at the end of the film and shoots Ingvar with a rifle before leading Ada into the mist forever. To some extent, I understand that the film could’ve ended no other way; there is no Happily Ever After for a family with so much trauma left to unravel. At the same time, however, there is no way to drop an apparent transplant from a furry convention into the final ten minutes of a sober drama and expect it to retain its poignancy. I’m sorry: it can’t be done.

Luckily, Noomi Rapace gets the last word, or rather the last lack of words: the final scene finds her forlornly scanning the hills, eyes brimming with knowing devastation. This closing tableau, plus the scene immediately prior in which she holds Ingvar’s bleeding corpse and asks—to no one, to everyone—“What’s happening?” ground the film enough to remind us why we’re here in the first place. These scenes comprise the movie’s most moving moments because they distill it to its essence: searching so ardently for answers, all María ever unearths is silence and blood. So it’s all the more shameful that such affecting solemnity has to share airtime with the mascot of a PETA ad campaign from a not-so-distant future. Even whiplash has its limits.

Lamb will probably appeal in some capacity to fans of A24’s previous horror offerings. Like Hereditary and Midsommar, it’s hallmarked by a world slightly askew and a grieving white woman who loves a good scream—and Rapace more than holds her own against Toni Collette and Florence Pugh, despite getting about half as many words with which to do it. It’s also visually striking and driven by compelling thematic interrogations. But it does those interrogations a disservice by broadening the scope of its world too widely. At the end of the day, we don’t need yet another cutaway to fog hugging the hilltops, and we certainly don’t need it spelled out for us that lamb-children grow up to become ram-men. It’s gimmicky, distracting, and laughable. Better to sit a little longer with what is missing.

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