A resurgence in the interest in cults seems to have occurred over the last couple of years, and stories about them —be them based on true life or fiction— are rife across film (Midsommar, Charlie Says) and television (Wild Wild Country) at the moment. What it says about our current climate that we’re fascinated and even craving stories about alternative living and belief systems (as dangerous as they may be) loaded with regiment and control is certainly worthy of entire essays, and Malgorzata Szumowska’s latest film The Other Lamb is an atmospheric addition ready to whet our appetite.
Finding its setting in a misty forest, teenage protagonist Selah (Raffey Cassidy) lives in a wood cabin with many other women. Youngsters in blue and older women in red— all with their hair in braided halos, the ‘sisters’ and ‘wives’ hang onto each word and command of their leader, Shepard (Michiel Huisman). Calling his many followers ‘lambs’, Shepard’s incredibly on-the-nose metaphor choices do little to instil a real believability in his biblical teachings that poise his graceful, long haired self as a figure of Christ. As a viewer, perhaps too much of an obvious choice but ‘the flock’ are completely subservient and willing to do his every bidding.
As a young woman soon to come of age, we see the cult through the eyes of Selah, and how her still-forming mind questions the teachings of Shepard as she struggles to grapple with her own changing body and independence. Shepard has big plans for her to become a wife but Selah is plagued by visions and also hyper-aware of Shepard’s real-life violence unfolding in front of her.
Its a visually stunning film, where even the most violent images are composed with a level of tranquillity that is impossibly beautiful. Selah’s environment feels desolate and bleak, with a cold wind chill rushing through every shot. As the winds and the discomfort amongst the flock rises, their neatly braided hair becomes loose, coinciding with their emotional undoing. After a run in with the police forces the flock to search for a ‘new Eden’ the folk song ‘Down in the River to Pray’ (famously included in O’ Brother Where Art Thou?) rumbles like a haunted spirit through the trees.
Szumowska is able to communicate horror without ever showing too much violence, hers is a film of heads and hands, delicate movements and facial expressions that communicate a deep and raging teenage anger that Selah is fuelled by. The gender dynamics at play serve a basic feminist message about women’s liberation and a desire to drift away from dated and dangerous notions of womanhood. I use the phrase ‘basic’ to describe The Other Lamb’s key themes because it always feels like its never pushing anything too hard. The horror is minimal, the stranglehold the Shepard retains also never feels too threatening, loose threads surrounding menstruation and motherhood are also very lightly touched upon, making the film feel like less of a statement than it had the potential to be.
Though crafted with intricate beauty and magnetism, the driving force of The Other Lamb lacks a sense of gusto and developed lore, which ironically is a problem that also befalls the Shepard’s own teachings— his lack of charisma being a serious head-scratcher for the plausibility of his dedicated following. However, what its quiet slow-burn lacks in momentum it makes up for in eerie atmosphere and is most definitely a welcome addition to a sub-genre that typically finds its kicks in maniacal, graphic violence.
The Other Lamb is available on VOD in the US now and in the UK on July 3rd
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She works as a teacher in the GLAM sector and freelances as a costume designer and maker living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.