Confident Icelandic debut which ’walks a delicate balance between supernatural thriller and absurdist comedy’
Dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson. Iceland/Sweden/Poland. 2021. 106 mins
An unsettling discovery in the sheep barn one day gives a young Icelandic farming couple, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace), a second chance at happiness, after a tragedy blighted their hopes of starting a family. But this unexpected opportunity for domestic bliss – Ingvar calls it a “gift” – is threatened, first by the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), and later by darker, more sinister and unatural forces. The brilliantly sustained mood and matter-of-fact absurdity of Valdimar Jóhannsson’s impressive debut is slightly let down by a pay-off which doesn’t entirely land. Still, the majority of the picture is strong enough to satisfy audiences with a taste for folk horror oddities, even if the ending isn’t quite as punchy as one might have anticipated.
A career-best performance from Noomi Rapace
It’s a supremely confident first feature from Jóhannsson, whose grandparents were Icelandic sheep farmers and who clearly knows his way around livestock – if nothing else, the film is notable for some exceptionally powerful ovine performances. The film was co-written with Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón and has a tonal kinship with the work of Robert Eggers (whose next project, The Northman, was also co-written by Sjón). Combining a career-best performance from Noomi Rapace and moments of macabre humour, this is a film which could have cult breakout potential. North American rights have been acquired by A24 and several European territories, including France, Germany and Denmark, were picked up at script stage.
The material, which walks a delicate balance between supernatural thriller and absurdist comedy, is a particularly happy fit for Rapace, whose intense, somewhat tortured acting style has rarely been better used. As Maria, she’s a woman who is initially going through the motions of her life. It takes a full ten minutes of the film, during in which she has birthed several lambs and driven a tractor, for the character to speak even a few words. Even so, when Maria and Ingvar do stumble through a faltering conversation, it’s clear that they are avoiding talking about the big subject, the cause of the mountainous anguish which looms over them and their isolated little homestead.
Much is left unsaid, in a film which lets the score and the sound design exert a subtle pressure that words would be unlikely to match. And it is to the picture’s considerable benefit that much is also left unshown. The secret of the mysterious arrival in the barn is jealously guarded until the end of the first of the film’s three chapters. And once more is revealed, a certain reticence remains. CGI is used, but for the most part, it is threaded pretty much seamlessly into this homely world of agricultural toil and gentle rhythms. It’s only at the picture’s very end that a CGI element feels somewhat jarring.
The conclusion might prove to be divisive, but for the most part this is a film which fluently explores the terrible uncertainties and terrors of parenting, the savage mutability of nature and the simmering violence of the lambs.
Production company: Go To Sheep, Spark Film&TV, Madants
International sales: New Europe Film Sales firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Hrönn Kristinsdóttir, Sara Nassim, Piodor Gustafsson, Erik Rydell, Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Jan Naszewski
Screenplay: Sjón, Valdimar Jóhannsson
Cinematography: Eli Arenson
Editor: Agnieszka Glińska
Production Design: Snorri Freyr Hilmarsson
Music: Þórarinn Guðnason
Main cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ingvar Sigurðsson