Friday, April 3, 2020

The Other Lamb (2020) Gives Rage A New Visceral Lease on Life

Since Martha Marcy May Marlene followed the traumatic aftermath of a young woman's escape from a cult, similar films have reinvented women's power in cinema over the past several years. By confronting and rejecting a regime designed to keep their followers' autonomy at bay, films like The Witch (2016) to Suspiria (2018) have laid the groundwork in exploring the 'chosen' one who decides to break free. In a similar vein, The Other Lamb takes a hypnotic dive into a young girl questioning her narrative and helping her sisters do the same.

Deep in the wilderness away from civilization, The Shepherd (Michel Huisman) tends to his flock of wives and daughters who worship his every word. On the cusp of teenage-hood, Selah (Raffey Cassidy) begins experiencing strange visions about the only community and family she's ever known. When the group seeks to find a new Eden, everything Selah thought she knew about The Shepherd might lead to the freedom she's secretly seeking.

From the outside looking in, cults are an enigmatic source of fascination. Questions often linger of how people become ingratiated as a part of a whole. Set between Selah’s interpretation of her relationship to The Shepherd, her own maturation, and connections with the other sisters, The Other Lamb explores enough of how the group works without becoming too bogged down with detail. The Shepherd's grace is law - his presence keeps his wives and daughters safe from a world bent on rotting their purity and purpose to serve him. Lying beneath his poise is an expected consent to his demands. His daughters and wives are broken up by their impurity in terms of beauty, attractiveness, servitude, and even menstruation.

Enter Selah's awakening. Leading the film with curiosity, skepticism, and faithfulness, Cassidy makes her character an mesmerizing blend of as well as a wolf-in-the-making. Her vulnerability is just as raw as the potential rage that's waiting to be unleashed. Stuck between being a Daughter but not quite a Wife to The Shepherd, Selah's desires towards The Shepherd begins to face off against her own autonomy. Hiding beneath her obvious worship of him lies a desire of wanting something more, and Cassidy's searing glances burns with adequate confusion, anger, and frustration to make an actress to watch out for.

Set opposite her that makes The Shepherd so special or beguiling is Michiel Huisman. Casting thirsty close-ups of Huisman – his eyes, abs, bright smile, and gorgeous face, it’s easy to fall under the prey of his presence even as a viewer like Selah and the rest of the group. The Shepherd's soft physicality submerges to a monster failing to believe his own lies and greatness. Huisman plays him with enough charisma to draw your attention towards him, but to also see the cracks of his servitude thinning out.

Director Małgorzata Szumowska's steadfast vision takes its time weaving brutal and heavenly imagery to blend Selah's journey between her dreams and reality. The Other Lamb doesn't burden itself or us with wonder of how and why the cult was built or expanded, just that it exists. And what matters is it how works for the moment and if it will be dismantled. Cementing this is Catherine S. McMullen’s script, which packs in symbolism towards the patriarchy, religion, and female empowerment. Some is left on the surface to be easily absorb, while other details will leave you thinking about it long after the movie is over. Unconcerned with building an event-heavy plot, the film beautifully pairs restriction and emancipation next to each other. Similarly, Michal Englert’s gorgeous cinematography, set in wide open spaces and fable-like forests with characters donning bright costumes, gives off the misleading assumption that its easy to escape if only Selah or the women just ran. The anticipation and longing for freedom must become too burdensome to sacrifice any longer.

When films deal with cult as a theme or setting, rage serves as an underscore of characters rejecting or denying the truth of what they've been told. Here, rage is expelled through Cassidy's enthralling performance and Selah's quest for truth that gives it a new lease. For some, the slow-burning direction and McMullen’s script might feel lacking world-building. However, the film unfolding Selah's liberation doesn't rest on why she doesn't leave or resist The Shepherd, it rests on when, and if so, how. Ultimately, the winding road of rebellion reflects a relevant Eden we seldom experience except in fables like this.

Rating: ★★1/2☆ 
Recommended if you like The Witch and Midsommar

 Please Note: I was provided with a screener to watch this film and provide an honest review. The Other Lamb is available on Cable VOD and digital streaming starting today.

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