David Rooney skrifar umsögn um Dýrið eftir Valdimar Jóhannsson í The Hollywood Reporter og kallar hana meðal annars sláandi sterka frumraun sem muni koma leikstjóranum á kortið.
A sheep-farming couple in rugged rural Iceland receive what they interpret to be an unexpected gift from nature to soothe the pain of a lingering loss in Lamb. But nature sees things differently in Valdimar Johannsson’s wild and weird folkloric drama, laced with brooding genre elements that veer into horror and a vigorous jolt of WTF humor. The stunningly assured first feature will put the director on the map in ways not dissimilar to Robert Eggers’ The Witch. The two films share certain tonal elements, notably a steadily building dread conjured out of long silences, an eerie loneliness and a bold grasp of the dark mysteries of human-animal relations.
The A24 title presents a significant challenge to reviewers — how to convey the mesmerizing fairy-tale fascination of the film without revealing the bizarre central element that steers a domestic scene of restored harmony into malevolent supernatural territory. That seems particularly pressing since the key disclosure doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film, at the end of the first of its three chapters. The less you know about Lamb going in, the better.
The bracingly original film was written by Johannsson with the Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and screenwriter who goes by the mononym Sjón, who also co-wrote Eggers’ upcoming Viking revenge thriller, The Northman. Johannsson was a student at Béla Tarr’s Film Factory in Sarajevo, and there are the faintest echoes here of the narrative austerity and the embrace of stillness in the work of the Hungarian master, who serves as an executive producer. But Johannsson’s voice is very much his own, attuned to the unique culture of his homeland and the harsh beauty of its landscape, often seen shrouded in mist.
The prologue images establish from the outset that this will be an arrestingly cinematic experience, as a feral horse herd slowly materializes in a white-out blizzard, and the animals freak and bolt at the approach of an unseen creature. What appears to be that same creature — based only on the sinister sound of its breathing — then enters the barn of an isolated farm, where the skittish sheep bleat apprehensively until one of them staggers out of its pen and collapses in a heap.
This is a movie in which the sentience and sensitivity of animals to their surroundings, and to intrusions within them, adds constant notes of tension. This applies not just to the fabulously expressive livestock but to the vigilant sheepdog that patrols the farm and the sphinx-like cat that shares a roof with married couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Gudnason).
At the beginning of the film, Maria and Ingvar go about their daily domestic routines and farm chores with minimal communication and zero joy, hinting at a hole in their lives, the cause of which will be revealed only much later. Clearly, they have suffered a pain so tremendous they are unable to speak of it.
Following the winter thaw, they get through an unusually busy lambing season, and at the end of it, the dog alerts them to something happening in the sheep shed. A female newborn, but what exactly is she? That remains something of a mystery even after Maria and Ingvar begin raising her in the house, bottle-feeding her and tucking her under blankets in a crib. Whatever she is, she represents their salvation.
The couple’s longing for the parenting experience makes them respond to the strange opportunity they’ve been given like people transformed. Gudnason injects Ingvar with new warmth and volubility, while Rapace — who is Swedish but spent her childhood in Iceland and gives what’s easily one of her best performances — reshapes Maria’s brittle remove into fiercely protective strength. When a stubborn ewe positions herself under the bedroom window of their humble little farmhouse to bleat in protest, Maria deals with the poor creature swiftly and mercilessly.
The unexpected arrival in Chapter II of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a failed pop star with a tendency to get into trouble and turn up at the farm battered and broke, threatens to upset the family’s fragile balance. “What the fuck is this?” he asks bluntly of the new addition. “Happiness,” responds Ingvar.
The absurdity of the situation is all the more amusing given Johannsson’s choice to play it straight. But it’s also unsettling, atmospherically charged by a soundscape that amplifies the breathing, snorting and bleating of every animal in the barn and the thud of their hooves on the rocky ground when they are let out to graze. The uncanny animal performances and the skill of DP Eli Arenson at capturing them in what appear to be attitudes of silent indignation indicate that the domestic bliss will be interrupted in Chapter III.
That happens first when Pétur continues to hit on his sister-in-law, perhaps suggesting a history between them. But his troublesome advances are nothing compared to the payback that nature — or some arcane folkloric version of it — has in store for them. The writers finally reveal the reason for the couple’s early sorrow, which made them so desperate for a new beginning that they never questioned the oddity of their discovery or whether they had any right to claim it as their own. All this turns up the shattering impact of the climactic tragedy, played out over the majestic solemnity of Thórarinn Gudnason’s score.
The creature effects of the final scenes are quite striking, and the hybrid form that plays a central role is an inspired mix of puppetry, CG and physical performance, a presence both funny and poignant. Lamb is a disturbing experience but also a highly original take on the anxieties of being a parent, a tale in which nature plus nurture yields a nightmare.