Starring Michiel Huisman, Raffey Cassidy, Denise Gough
Written by C.S. McMullen
Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska
In a small self-sufficient commune out in the middle of wooded nowhere, Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) is the sole luminary atop a throng of women and children, each either his wife or his daughter. The all-female clan shuns technology and isolates themselves from the civilized world, all for him. Among them is the strong-minded Selah (Raffey Cassidy), pure and pious. As womanhood (and consummation with Shepherd) draws ever-closer and she gets a glimpse of how age devalues the wives, Selah enters a crisis of faith and identity. Such is director Małgorzata Szumowska’s arthouse horror feature The Other Lamb.
In Lamb, Szumowska and screenwriter C.S. McMullen concern themselves with the power dynamics of a cult. The gender norms one finds in western society finds amplification in the Flock. It’s not just the Biblical ram/ewe/lamb metaphors; the wives and daughters are subservient to their patriarch in every facet of life, thanking their messiah for everything and praying for him daily. Classic manipulation tactics are on full display; the Shepherd chooses his sexual conquest for the night by going down the row of his seated wives, “Duck, Duck, Goose” style, and placing a hand on one’s shoulder and whispering “Accept my grace” (no one dare says no). While the wives defer to their dear leader, there is a hierarchy among the women themselves, which keeps the tension taut throughout the movie. Older wives have seniority and oversee the girls’ duties around the homestead. It gets weird when they include laying with the Shepherd among the duties once the daughters come of age, but hey, it’s cult horror. Any narrative slack tightens up once the law dogs come sniffing around and hint that it’s only a matter of time before they arrest the faux messiah. He commands that the group follow him to the edge of the earth with meager supplies in search of a “new Eden.” Selah doubts. Trouble brews.
The power dynamics lace themselves throughout the celluloid; brilliant staging and framing determines who is in control in any given scene. It’s patient; static, lingering shots and oozing tilts let the audience observe a situation rather than watching a series of shocking events. Selah’s battle with puberty conjures up intoxicating visions: a skinned lamb, a menstrual bloodbath, a silent scream filling the frame. A forgiveable amount of voiceover narration amplifies the teenager’s internal conflict, but Szumowska takes notes from the Akira Kurosawa school of visual flourishes to show more than she tells; fire rages during moments of lust and jealousy, while rain and cold wind blows during moments of despair and resentment.
The camera is womb-centric, presenting women as worthy of reverence, and the only male body as an object. The simple act of casting a conventionally attractive person as the charismatic guru is a departure from the oft-middle-aged unhygenic weirdo in such roles. Finally, it makes sense that women would flock to the guy. His cult-friendly turn in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation still fresh, Michiel Huisman is positively repulsive as Shepherd (he has another name but that is saved for a particularly delicious moment), an unsettling reminder of the older guy who would hang around the high school and comment on the “maturity” of the underage girls he preyed upon. Both Huisman and Raffey Cassidy find powerful vulnerability in their characters’ silent moments, saying the most when they say nothing at all.
The film’s only flaw is in its unsatisfying resolution. Selah’s arc speaks to a simmering frustration with the status quo, one that wants nothing more than a balancing of the scales, power-wise. Without giving too much of the plot away, the final moments of the film deny the audience the catharsis that the previous hour and a half had been tirelessly working towards. One sensational shot later and, while the story is technically over, we’re left emotionally stranded from the climatic offscreen moment that should have preceded it. There’s intent behind it; most of the movie avoids gory spectacle and spotlights the before and after. But at the most fervent peak of the film, the effect is a distancing one.
Tonally, the film is closest in spirit to Sean Durkin’s 2011 post-traumatic gem Martha Marcy May Marlene, forgoing the most sensational elements of the subgenre– blood sacrifices by the bonfire, cries of “Hail Satan!”– in favor of unpacking the mental effects of assimilation into a dangerous sect. Cult films are often jacked up to a fever pitch; The Other Lamb offers something different and thus it is a welcome breath of fresh air. With that divergence in mind, I imagine that the response to the potboiler of a story will have a polarized gender divide; while men are likely to see Selah’s journey as molasses-paced man-hating overkill, it wouldn’t surprise me to see femme-identifying people finding acknowledgement within the female gaze, and representation with untethered feminine energy. Regardless of which hearts it strikes, The Other Lamb‘s aim is true and its voice necessary.
The Other Lamb is a Grimm fable for women, complete with resntful stepmothers and a monstrous bridegroom. A hollow ending still ticks the genre boxes; the film is, overall, a measured and effective brew.