When I got my accreditation for Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, one of the titles I was most excited about was The Other Lamb, written by C.S. McMullen and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska, a Polish filmmaker whose work I really admire.
Unfortunately, my really packed schedule during TIFF prevented me from having the chance to watch the film… until now. Picked up by IFC Midnight after the festival, The Other Lamb is a horror-drama about an all-female cult led by a man and it’s available on VOD since April 3rd.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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The Other Lamb – story, religious metaphors and feminist commentary
In this film, we witness the events from the perspective of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a young girl who is part of the all-female cult led by the Shepherd (Michael Huisman, of The Hunting of Hill House fame). Their self-sufficient community has no modern technology and lives hidden in the woods, far away from modern civilisation. Shepherd is the group’s guardian, teacher, and lover. Each of the female members of the group is either his wife or daughter. Selah seems to be “the chosen one”, as the movie insists on her strong faith. However, after an incident forces the cult members to find a new home and a journey begins, Selah begins to question Shepherd’s morality and intentions…
The script written by C.S. McMullen is very ambitious, as The Other Lamb combines religious references with an overarching feminist agenda. On one hand, the film revolves around the theme of cult/messiah phenomena, brushing over topics such as gendered power, narcissism and emotional imprisonment. On the other, it presents itself as a tame revenge story, a surface-level female empowerment fable that’s more implied than actually communicated. In fact, the biggest issue with The Other Lamb is that, throughout the 97-minute-long runtime, very little is developed. Characters are nothing more than vague concept (aside from Selah), the progression of events is unnecessarily plodding, the story itself is shallow and doesn’t expand beyond the brief synopsis I just wrote above.
An empty treat to eyes and ears
The added value in The Other Lamb is represented by its visuals and audio qualities. Malgorzata Szumowska truly elevated the material providing the film with a jaw-droppingly beautiful veneer: this movie doesn’t just look great thanks to stunning locations and documentary-like camera lenses, it also benefits from a very unique cinematography. The reliance on patient zooms, the unconventional framing (with huge space above the female characters’ head), the impeccable shot-composition make The Other Lamb a pleasure to watch. This is backed up by the outstanding, subtle score and the meticulous sound-design: the attention to detail is evident when certain notes are unnaturally broken and replayed, providing our brains with the subconscious sensation that something is not right.
As I was mentioning before, the problem comes when such attention and effort put into the visuals serves no purpose in terms of story: aside from insisting on certain loose concepts about religion and feminism, nothing is really developed throughout the course of The Other Lamb. For example, it takes a stupidly long time for the women to start doubting the Shepherd’s teaching: there’s no build-up to it, therefore their reactions just feel forced and hard to understand, which also causes the feminist message to be completely lost. In fact, had I not read about possible interpretations on the meaning of The Other Lamb, I wouldn’t have picked up on these themes.
Lack of characters, lack of soul
From what I read searching through interviews to the cast and crew that worked on The Other Lamb, it seems clear that the movie’s intent wasn’t focused on figuring out what happened in the story; instead, they were more intrigued by the role both men and women play in this hierarchic universe set up in the film. This is all fine and dandy on paper, but it doesn’t work when characters have no depth, defined motivation and personality.
Aside from Selah’s character, there are no development arcs to be found in The Other Lamb, which causes the acting to come off as wooden and stiff: none of the actors had anything to work with, thus their performances are devoid of any emotions even when the film is implying them. Selah’s journey is, too, extremely underdeveloped and basic, as her motivations aren’t properly communicated: she’s smart and doubtful, thus she has uncertainties about the dogmatic ways of the Shepherd. That’s it.
On paper, The Other Lamb is the kind of modern horror film I adore: a slow-burn steeped in social commentary and wrapped-up in gorgeous visuals. However, the lack of development in every department makes it a very shallow, empty watching experience. By the end of it, I felt like nothing was communicated and a few themes were merely insisted on.
Too “artsy-fartsy” for the average horror fan, yet extremely shallow and pointless for cinema connoisseurs, all The Other Lamb has to offer is its immaculate cinematography and outstanding sound design. If that’s enough for you, do give it a go. If what you look for in horror is either mindless entertainment or intriguing food for thought, I would advise against watching this movie.
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