Selah (Raffey Cassidy) has only ever known life inside the obscure, isolated cult ruled by the messiah-like presence of Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), a charismatic yet imposing and frightening figure who also serves, not coincidentally, as the only male she's ever known. Surrounded by similarly cloistered young women divided essentially into blue-clad daughters and red-clad wives, the women are subject to Shepherd's narcissistic tendencies and insecure nightly whims and desires.
Yet, Selah is growing into something that poses a threat to Shepherd - a young woman with a mind of her own who is increasingly unafraid to use it to doubt and to question. As she nears the time when she is expected to transition from daughter to wife, Selah begins to question everything about her existence. When the flock is forced to quickly vacate from their longtime home, Selah's unsettled spirit begins to experience nightmarish visions and dark revelations that deepen her questioning of this wannabe messiah and the iron-fisted grip he has on her and all the other women.
Existing somewhere within the haunting, gothic-tinged worlds of The Red Tent and more familiar cult-centered cinematic fare like Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Handmaid's Tale, The Other Lamb is both sublimely meditative and quietly horrific in portraying one young woman's coming-of-age in a world where coming-of-age carries with it a tremendous price.
The film is the English language debut from Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska and it possesses Szumowska's usual striking visuals and immersive atmosphere. An undeniable feminist parable that demands patience and introspection while simultaneously subjecting one to violent imagery, The Other Lamb is often somber nearing melancholy yet deceptively so.
Be patient, dear ones. Be patient.
As Selah, Raffey Cassidy (Vox Lux, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is mesmerizing. Cassidy transforms Selah before our eyes from virginal innocence into what could easily be described as a feminist warrior. She seethes and the entire motion picture seems to seethe with her, though her quiet presence never loses its vulnerability and she never loses our favor. It's a tremendous performance that unfolds with discipline and force.
Michiel Huisman's (The Haunting of Hill House) spiritual swagger is equally mesmerizing, though Huisman lets us know rather early on that there's more bubbling just underneath Shepherd's surface. Huisman is so good at humanizing Shepherd that, at times, it's difficult to understand the sway he has over this small but loyal flock but, in essence, one could say that about nearly every cult leader ever born.
Early on, it's obvious that Shepherd is a master at mind control. His favor is hard won and he's successful, repeatedly, at splitting the women who have every reason to unite in rebellion. We learn very little about the women, possible exception being Denise Gough as Sarah, whose portrayal of a former favored wife now deemed broken is filled with the entire history of her life and this cult. While Cassidy and Gough truly shine, there's not a weak performance amongst the film's ensemble cast.
C.S. McMullen's sparse yet meaningful screenplay is beautifully brought to life by Szumowska along with the magnificent lensing of Michal Englert (The Congress). Englert frames the film wonderfully, at times amplifying the film's spirit-filled horror and at times pulling back and immersing us in it as is done near film's end. The film's landscape is marvelous and elicits a sense of isolation even as the film drops hints that the isolation is truly fleeting.
At times, Szumowska holds back just a wee bit much and expects a patience that most audience members are unlikely to have. There's no question, none at all, that The Other Lamb is practically the definition of an arthouse film, a film for true cineastes and those willing to surrender themselves to a cinematic experience unlike any other they're likely to have this year.
Opening in digital/VOD formats, The Other Lamb was due for a simultaneous theatrical release and it's a shame that's unlikely to occur due to a public health emergency that has limited public cinematic exhibitions. This is a film that would likely envelope on the big screen, but in the warmth and intimacy of one's home it's still a film that will pull you in and baptize you in its skewed holy waters.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic