Visually striking and effectively moody, The Other Lamb isn’t quite style over substance, but veers close with a thin script and abrupt climax.
There are few things more suited to being the basis of an unsettling horror-drama than a cult, in large part because they bundle so many of humanity’s worst qualities into one isolated, subservient population. Cult leaders, for instance, are almost always predatory men, many styled quite literally after the messianic figure they’re pretending to emulate; cult members are people who need something, be it meaning or fellowship or attention. A cult tightens and intensifies our natural blights – our tendency to uplift the handsome and charismatic to positions of authority, to look to those positions of authority for things they can’t realistically provide, and to mistake, willingly or inadvertently, their ministrations as love and affection and praise. The Other Lamb, an arty English-language debut for acclaimed Polish filmmaker Ma?gorzata Szumowska, is about such a cult, the so-called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) who leads it and the all-female flock to whom he tends.
In being about such a cult, The Other Lamb is also about gender norms, collective belief in the unbelievable, and coming of age within a rigid culture of abuse and exploitation, the latter from the perspective of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), whose development of agency and independence parallels the gradual unraveling of the Shepherd’s suffocating, sadistic belief system. The film is a patient drama, for the most part; content to communicate wordlessly wherever possible, leaning on gorgeous imagery that descends further and further into the nightmarish territory of outright horror. But the scariest thing here is Selah’s gradual realization that the life to which she pledged herself was designed to dehumanize her, strip her of agency, and mine her very identity for the Shepherd’s benefit. The script by C.S. McMullen allows her to realize that her devotion has been victimhood all along.
This thread of submissive women being controlled by men is reflective of a common dynamic that, now most of the world has been confined to their homes, is evidenced by steadily rising statistics. Lots of men treat women the way the Shepherd treats Selah and her sisters, and these men are not cult leaders but regular tradesmen and middle managers and other everyday things. These women, too, are not of a cult, per se, but are led by blind faith in an idea – that their husband or boyfriend loves them, is reasonable, isn’t dangerous and deranged. The Other Lamb allows these obvious parallels to sit and be observed, but never really manages to locate the power in the specific relationship between Selah and the Shepherd. Their personal conflict is less impactful than it might be and resolved too quickly to leave a lasting impact. The film’s imagery does the talking, and loudly at that, but one gets the sense its characters had more to say.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.