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Malgorzata Szumowska's The Other Lamb: A Compelling But Incomplete Vision

Michiel Huisman as Shepherd in Malgorzata Szumowska's THE OTHER LAMB.
Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release

Polish director Malgorzata Szumowka's latest film The Other Lamb is a visual stunner. With plenty of atmosphere, a bleak tone, a slow and steady build, and key memorable performances, the pieces should align to create a complete vision. However, while the vision captivates, at the end, it leaves the viewer unsatisfied and unsure as to what it all means.

Selah (Raffey Cassidy; The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has been raised in a cult lead by a man she knows only as Shepherd (Michiel Huisman; The Haunting of Hill House; The Invitation). Living in the woods and cut off from society, the rest of the group are all women and are known as the wives (all in red) and the daughters/sisters (all in emerald blue). The color scheme serves a function in letting everyone know their place. The wives have all been given the Shepherd's "grace" – the right to be born again as his sexual subjects – while the daughters are the literal daughters of one of the wives, who will one day wear red and "level up" to sex partner.

Selah and her fellow cult followers submit to Shepherd with enthusiasm and even ecstasy. They work together, eat together, and sleep together, singing as they go about their tasks. There is regular worship times, where the Shepherd gives a sermon of sorts, sacrifices a lamb, and blesses them by marking those who please him with blood on their cheeks – the girls babbling in tongues with joy when they are touched in this way. Selah, for her part, seems to soak it all in, but she has questions. What was her Mother like? And what does it all mean? Her questioning nature seems to please Shepherd, although she often gets her hand slapped for not simply accepting what she's told.

When the local authorities come to call and question the lives of the cult, Shepherd decides it's time to relocate, moving away from the only home Selah has ever known. The difficult journey to "the new Eden" will push the group to the limits and show Selah the truth about Shepherd, what happened to her mother, and what's truly inside of her and the other sisters and wives.

Michael Enlert's cinematography grabs viewer attention from the start. The natural landscapes, wooded rustic scene dressing, and pastoral aesthetic create a timeless feel. If not for the lawman's car that enters the commune for a moment, we could be in the past, present, or even future. In the bleak clearing, where the group lives, the trees appear stripped of foliage. The subconscious effect echoes life inside the cult. There is no growth; no life; no hope.

Shepherd and his flock deal with a tragedy along the way to the New Eden in Malgorzata Szumowska's THE OTHER LAMB. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight release. 

Viewers who have binged Bruce Miller's Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale will find this color palette quite familiar, and although the meaning the Shepherd attaches to each color doesn't align with the way the colors translate in Handmaid's dystopia, the result on screen remains the same. The ladies are color-coded, marginalized, and labeled for their role. They are not individuals. The ones that do stand out do so because they are displeasing (redhead Tamar and the young sister who has a facial deformity are frequently left out when Shepherd gives verbal praise or fatherly affection.)

The camera often lingers on shots of animals, whether it be sheep, birds, or dogs that seem to be living out their own drama. These scenes serve no purpose on their own, but often they reflect or foreshadow something to come. Although the Shepherd's flock have been taught and want to believe that the cult means safety and belonging, these moments, with their sinister tone, let the viewer know things aren't right. Selah's dreams and visions likewise show darkness from the beginning but it's up to the viewer to decide what they mean. Are these visions or flashbacks of something that actually happened.

Where The Other Lamb misses the mark is the ending. The visuals of this movie hold power and the screenplay sets up a compelling chain of events that will captive. But it leaves Selah, her crew, and the audience stranded at the end. The events of the plot assure us that cults are bad, and that Shepherd is no kind benefactor. Every movie about cults has the same story. But the ending seems more like a setup for a sequel, rather than a resolution. It's clear that Selah has changed, but how has she changed and where will she go? In the end, this vision is incomplete, but it's a stunning ride along the way. While this isn't a bad film, it fails to go above anything we've seen before.

Final score 3.5 out of 5
 

Available on VOD and digital on April 3, 2020

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