Few movies this year are as quietly captivating as Valdimar Jóhannsson’s minimalist supernatural horror movie Lamb, released in the U.S. by famed indie studio A24.
With more animals seen onscreen than human actors, Jóhannsson’s debut feature film explores parental grief and loss amidst vast Icelandic farmlands. And it’s in these wide-open fields of dull greenery that something terrifying stalks the human characters.
“It can stand for so many things,” Jóhannsson tells Inverse about his movie’s ending. “Even I’ve changed my mind after watching the film so often. But it can stand for nature; it can stand for so many things. I feel everybody has to take their own understanding of it.”
He adds, “I think it’s not interesting to know what I think about it.”
In Lamb, Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, Bright) stars as sheep farmer Maria, who, with her husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), is grieving the loss of their child. When a baby lamb is born with disturbing half-human physiology, Maria and Ingvar choose to raise the child on their own, all while refusing to acknowledge that the child, named “Ada,” is not their own.
In an interview with Inverse, Jóhannsson and Rapace discuss the making of Lamb, which includes the live births of real sheep on camera, and the meaning of the movie’s shocking, nightmarish ending.
Warning: Spoilers for Lamb ahead.
Lamb ending: The “Ram Man” revealed
At the end of Lamb, the true “father” of six-month-old Ada is revealed: A towering, menacing half-human, half-ram. This “Ram Man,” as the filmmakers call him, appears and shoots Ingvar dead with his own hunting rifle and takes Ada back with him to live in the wild.
When Maria discovers Ingvar’s body, she mourns before silently accepting what just transpired.
It’s a strange ending, with relatively little said by the characters. But at a post-screening Q&A (which Inverse participated in) at New York’s Scandinavian House, as well as a separate interview with Inverse, Rapace elaborates on what the ending reveals about Maria.
Lamb ending: What does the “Ram Man” represent?
“I think [Maria] always thought that Ada wouldn’t stay,” Rapace said at the Q&A.
“When we meet her, she’s not living. She’s surviving. When Ada is born, it becomes a gift, like oxygen for her body and soul,” Rapace said. “She knows [Ada will] only be there for as long as she needs. She somehow always knew the Ram Man [was there] and that Ada will be taken away from her.”
Rapace adds that the “Ram Man” represents nature's wrath and its anger towards humans who exploit the earth for greedy purposes. The Ram Man was born out of Jóhannsson’s imagination, who said at the Q&A that he once had a nightmare about a giant ram.
“It’s not a joke,” Jóhannsson said at the Q&A. Before embarking on the Lamb press tour in the U.S., his mother dropped off a book in which a young Jóhannsson documented his dreams. “I went through one, and it was about huge rams eating polar bears.”
Lamb has no polar bear slaughters, but the monster of Jóhannsson’s dreams manifests through anger in the film. It’s not necessarily evil; it’s simply seeking justice for itself.
“[Maria] takes something that is not hers because she needs to heal,” Rapace said, “She doesn’t see him, but she knows. That’s why in the end, her pain is released. She’s breathing again; she’s alive. It’s the beginning of a new chapter. It’s extremely painful, but she is there.”
In a separate interview with Inverse, which took place the day after the Q&A, Rapace elaborated on how Maria is “freed” at the end of Lamb. Rapace herself was raised on a farm in Iceland, where her grandmother imparted folk wisdom to her.
“My grandma always said, ‘Don’t provoke the elves.’ We have to be respectful to all creatures, even ones we don’t see,” Rapace explains. “I was always aware of things that are not there. And if you cross that line and take something that is not yours to have, nature will hit back. They will avenge you and come after you.”
She adds that Maria lives with Ada “on borrowed time.”
“It’s almost like a love story or summer fling. You know it’s going to be over when fall comes,” she says. “She knows that. That’s why at the end, she doesn’t come after the Ram Man. She doesn’t run to find Ada. She knows this was supposed to be. She is back alive and awake.”
How Lamb brought Noomi Rapace back to her roots
The terrifying “Ram Man” isn’t the only surprising thing in Lamb.
Filmed during the last week of lambing season in Iceland, the movie features real animals, from sheep to dogs and cats, who appear onscreen with human behaviors like confusion, suspicion, anger, and pain. Jóhannsson credits his many farmers and animal handlers on set to help him “direct” the animals.
“That’s the reason why they’re so believable,” Jóhannsson tells Inverse. “They’re just [being] totally themselves, feeling safe.”
“Animals have a strong intuition,” Rapace says. “If they feel threatened or stressed, they start behaving not like themselves. There was things we wanted to do, but we couldn’t push them.”
Rapace and Jóhannsson both describe a “mother sheep” that got “wired up,” which caused the set to take a long break for the sheep to cool down. “That’s what I’m going to start doing from now on,” Rapace jokes.
Rapace also delivered real lambs from pregnant sheep on camera. She had never delivered before despite growing up on a real farm in Iceland. “It’s all real, happened in real-time,” she says. “I delivered two lambs [for the movie], I saw them stand and open their eyes for the first time. It was magical and scary. It was intense. You see life begin.”
Despite the eerie, isolating world in Lamb, the Icelandic set was comforting for Rapace, who felt like she’d come home after a long journey across the globe.
“I felt like I went back to my roots, to the old Noomi. It was quite magical how the Noomi I am today reconnected with child Noomi, where my life began, and where I found myself,” she says. “I felt like an orphan. Iceland became a parent to me. I felt like I belonged.”
Lamb is now playing in theaters.