Kogonada’s film “After Yang” first premiered at Cannes Festival this past summer, and then at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it earned the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan prize, for outstanding feature film about science or technology.
Easily the worst thing I’ve seen all year
Not all films work for everyone. There are in fact people who did not enjoy commercial successes like Titanic or critically acclaimed films like Citizen Kane. By and large, however, people did find something to love and adore in these films. I mention that because when I saw Lamb I was rather puzzled. So much so in fact, that I decided to chat up several of the other reviewers and writers afterwards only to find more of the same reaction.
The film opens on a couple who are seemingly devoid of joy in their lives and spend their days tending their flock sheep. That is until an ominous and mysterious visitor comes and leaves ‘a gift’ on Christmas Eve, so to speak. At this point during the onset of the film, I was genuinely intrigued to see where this was going. There were hints of Kierkegaard and a divine connection, a teasing of the subtle take on a narrative structure that would continue throughout, and most curiously a very unsettling discovery of events. But all of these threads either led nowhere or to a payoff that simply isn’t worth it.
From the opening scenes to the inciting incident, the film takes its time in dreary fashion. I’m always willing to give a filmmaker the time to tell his story, however, from those opening minutes, the film continues to meander for another entire hour. To better describe what that looks like, it’s reminiscent of a silent film of the pre-code era. The majority of the film, especially the first two acts, are just framed shots of mundane activities, not unlike b-roll you would find in passing at the MoMA. To be fair, these scenes are beautiful to see and are brilliantly shot, but film has progressed to be more than just moving images during the past century. The only breaks during this monotony are the first climaxes of the first and second act and the midpoint. And to clarify, I’d give more details as to what these moments were, if they didn’t completely ruin the film for any poor soul that would subject themselves through this film.
Despite all that, there is some credit to give. This is Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature debut and I do admire the fact that he tried to take a daring approach to tell a story. There were numerous creative liberties he took with telling a narrative story that made this film even remotely watchable. Specifically, the way he went about discovery of information – through the use of mise en scène and strategic timing – was particularly good and unique. However, that’s the only positive I can give this director or this film. The sad fact of the matter is that the underlying story itself is so tragically underwhelming and unsuitable for the format of a feature that it inevitably reflects poorly on him. At the end of the day, the plot is a paper thin story that’s been told hundreds of times during the past century to much greater success. Here we have something I’ve seen common in many European films of the past decade: a few good twists and tricks, but no actual substance. And that to me is rather damning considering the current state of American cinema as well. Additionally, and I always repeat these in my reviews, not all stories need to be told in two hours. If this story was told through a ten-minute short, it still wouldn’t be good, but, it would be at the very least digestible. It’s far easier to endure ten minutes than the torturous ninety-seven I sat through.
Performances were great all around. Needless to say Noomi Rapace breathed much needed life into the film. That’s not to say she was alone in that, as Hilmir Snær Guðnasan and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson rather perfectly filled their roles. They were understated when needed and dynamic when the moment called for it. It’s also another credit I want to give to Jóhannsson as great performances are also due in large part to solid direction.
All in all, this film was very much like a train that’s run out of tracks – it went nowhere. In fact, it’s definitely one of the worst films I’ve ever seen and after getting initial reactions from others, I’m not alone in that opinion. It doesn’t even make sense to discuss the thematic message of man’s relationship with nature as it’s a touch trite in this day and age and it doesn’t come across very clearly in the film. Despite that, I genuinely believe that Jóhannsson has got what it takes to be a great director and should get more projects in the future. Lamb releases on October 8th, and unless you plan on making a drinking game out of the film or exploring experimental storytelling, I don’t recommend you see it.