Slipperiness is the only constant in Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s English-language debut, which ably straddles the border between drama and horror. The Other Lamb skitters toward the border of the genre of unease and discomfort, dipping its toes in murky waters with both explicit visuals and unspoken implications. However, it gracefully refuses to dive in with scares to please those who can only feel satisfied if they’ve jumped out of their seats. Szumowska also ensures that we’re never truly certain where we are, or even when, with the story of a cult isolated from modern life who wear garb from a forgotten age. Clues, from a flag sticker in a window to the accents of the actors, that tell us we’re somewhere in America are undermined by the Irish landscape, which looks like nowhere in these United States. Each element contributes to the eeriness that pervades every gorgeous frame, leaving the audience in a state of discomfort from start to finish.
The Other Lamb also doesn’t offer much explanation for the strange, sometimes surreal world it drops the audience into at the beginning of the film. The character who provides our eyes is Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenage girl who was born into the cult and knows no other life, therefore she needs no explanation. She grew up surrounded by the female acolytes of the cult’s only man, called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) by his flock. His followers are divided into two groups: the young girls who are Daughters and all wear the same shade of teal blue, and the women who are Wives, clad in identical long raspberry-colored dresses more fitting for a few centuries ago. They lead lives of monotony and habit, harmonizing folk hymns while performing daily chores and praising their leader, who unsurprisingly bears resemblance to Jesus, as these types often do — or a much taller, better groomed Charles Manson. Their simple forest home looks like a spartan but well-designed cabin you’d find on Airbnb with a would-be Scandanavian string art devotee as its host.
Though Selah is still a Daughter, she is on the cusp of becoming a woman — and a Wife. Though devoted to their Shepherd, she is headstrong; she begins to question their faith and the life they all lead, alone in the wilderness together. A mysterious appearance by an outsider causes them to leave their idyll, forcing them to trust the Shepherd even more as they follow him to their new home.
Catherine S. McMullen’s script leans heavily on metaphor, symbolism, and dream sequences, all in service of the film’s condemnation of the patriarchy and blind belief in systems that only benefit those in power. It’s somehow both a lot and never quite too much, trusting that the audience will join them on this journey, even if an element doesn’t make 100% sense in the moment. The editing skips over bits that might feel key to fully grasping what’s going on every second, but the approach appears entirely intentional and just further contributes to our sense of disorientation. It’s an exhausting feeling during the film’s 90-minute running time, causing the final third to drag its feet like the tired Wives and Daughters themselves.
But what truly makes The Other Lamb worth watching is its visuals, particularly the haunting cinematography from Michal Englert. Whether he is capturing light filtering through the trees or maggots bringing the flesh of a dead bird to life, there’s a strange beauty in every frame. He and Szumowska bring detail and texture into every aspect of this world, making for mesmerizing viewing. The Other Lamb is the type of film that leaves audiences thinking about its images and ideas once the folky credits song begins to play, and for hours afterward. You’re not always sure of what you’re seeing in each scene, but you know you want to see more from Szumowska.
“The Other Lamb” is available Friday on demand.