The convergence of the human and animal world is where the film “Lamb” bleats and bleeds, and your view of adoption may never be the same afterward. Set on a remote farm in the Icelandic tundra that could center either a horror film or a children’s fable, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s debut feature — which is sorta both — is in certain ways unexplainable, and in other ways as straightforward as a family portrait.
If that doesn’t always make for a successful experiment, at the very least it heralds a serious new movie talent with classical chops who’s also unafraid of where his ideas take him.
I’ll hold off on mentioning the movie’s fantastical leap for now, because you may need a little more information before deciding whether this is your cup of tea. The opening sequence, for example, suggests we’re in for something ominous, as heavy breathing accompanies a slowly pushed camera through a wintry frame and toward a grouping of horses that seem ready to clear a space. Then, at a sheep barn in the night, something gets the attention of its penned inhabitants. One of them falls over. The others look concerned.
In the light of the long Icelandic day, we meet sheep farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). They seem like dedicated partners in a hard, isolating operation if not exactly expressive, tender partners in a marriage. Then one day, one of their ewes begins lambing, and the look Maria gives Ingvar after the birth says it all: They’re taking this one inside to raise themselves. Not as a pet, mind you, but as their child, to be swaddled, cribbed, bottle-fed, named (Ada), and — as Maria’s subtly changed demeanor indicates — fiercely protected with an almost primal awareness to the world around her.
While this new addition brings a cautious joy to the household, they aren’t the only ones feeling something; there’s the constant bleat of the mother ewe outside the bedroom window where Ada sleeps. It’s the kind of aching, relatable (and portentous) detail — along with how Jóhannsson affords pride of close-up to the other sheep, plus the house dog and cat — that memorably imbues “Lamb” with an equality of perceived soulfulness across all its depicted creatures.
It’s an unusual and bracing dedication to animal sentience for a movie that isn’t animated and anthropomorphized. And the fact that the plaintive vocalizing unnerves Maria signifies that this new breach in the usual human-beast contract not only isn’t being readily accepted by the deprived birth mom, but also comes with guilt. Even as Ada appears to heal something in this childless couple, this unease also indicates Jóhannsson has us exactly where he wants us: mesmerized and unsettled.
Of course, if you think humans rearing a lamb like one of their own is the fantastical leap referred to earlier, that’s only the half of it. Jóhannsson’s early visual caginess about Ada — first showing only that adorable baby ovine head peeking out from a blanket — is a bit of a tell that there’s more to reveal, with the show part coming around 40 minutes in, when the depicting of Ada from thereon requires, after the initial shock, a delicate balance of CGI, puppetry, and sheep and child acting.
When Ingvar’s has-been rock star brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) makes an unannounced visit and meets Ada for the first time, his WTF face is so measuredly Scandinavian you may find her as unrealistic as does this youngest member of the family. (Which isn’t a knock on the effects team, who do a commendable job, but rather the set-up’s inherent outlandishness.)
Humor isn’t absent from the proceedings, but “Lamb” doesn’t treat its supernatural premise like a joke; the Petur sequence, which takes him from ewww to awww, seems intended to acknowledge how any of us might come to view the situation initially, then become swayed by it. But this section is also choppy and occasionally tedious, as if inserted to stretch a storybook to feature length.
When the movie re-focuses on what’s effortlessly foreboding about the scenario Jóhannsson and co-screenwriter Sjón have created, what Rapace and Guðnason seem to feel in their bones, and what cinematographer Eli Arenson renders from the crisply beautiful ruggedness of an unforgiving landscape, “Lamb” feels back on track as a fractured folktale edging closer to an unforeseen darkness in the natural world.
“Lamb” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.