Cult films are so hot right now. Midsommar madness dominated our summer, Quentin Tarantino rewrote the history of the Manson family in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, and we all know true crime obsession with cults has gripped the cultural zeitgeist. So how can a film stick out from what is a saturated subgenre market? Make a film about the slow and agonizing decline of a cult, which is precisely what Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska (In the Name Of) does. Her first English language feature The Other Lamb dives into what it means to grow up in a cult and realize that all you’ve known is built on lies.
Selah (Raffey Cassidy, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer) is a Daughter of the Shepherd (Michiel Huisiman, The Invitation), who leads a group made up of all women. As Selah says, there can only be one ram in a flock. The group is divided into two groups: the Wives, who wear red dresses and can have sex with the Shepherd, and the Daughters, who wear blue and are literally the Shepherd’s daughters. They live their lives worshipping him while tending to their small, secluded farm. They pray, watch over the sheep, slaughter their food, and sing songs. But when the group must leave their established homestead after being threatened by the police, Selah’s faith begins to fall apart.
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“The Other Lamb is a beautiful and welcome addition to the cult subgenre”
The best way to describe The Other Lamb is disturbingly erotic. There is an uncomfortable energy between Selah and the Shepherd, one portrayed through long gazes and intimate touches of the neck and hair. While this may be sensual in any other romance film, in The Other Lamb, it is sickening. He is manipulating and grooming a young girl who has only recently gotten her period. It is disgusting, but it is meant to be. The Shepherd, while seen as some prophet, is shown as just a man who loves to shove his fingers done a woman’s throat. Szumowska does a brilliant job of establishing both the charisma of the Shepherd, as well as his painfully obvious humanity. While his followers cannot see his flaws, the audience can and know he is far from infallible.
Cassidy’s performance as Selah is intense and profound. Her piercing eyes convey both adoration and anger, capturing the persistent uncertainty that comes with adolescence. She deeply loves the Shepherd, but also is wise enough to realize what he really is: a power-hungry man with perverse desires and a need to control women. You want to protect Selah from the evils of men, but you also feel a swell of pride as she begins to become her own person.
The cult’s world is haunting as their encampment is surrounded by miles of wilderness. Their first settlement is in a forest of barren trees, which are connected by elaborate constructions of yarn. No explanation of why the yarn is used, making it all the more spooky and strange. Cinematographer Michal Englert shoots in alternating wide shots and closeups, focusing on both the vast natural landscape around the cult, as well as the small moments of intimacy between characters. This creates a fascinating tension between just how small these people really are but how much their actions impact each other. Their surroundings make them feel like they exist in another time, perhaps in the past. But brief glimpses of cars show us that the cult lives in our time, but just barely, existing on the fringes of society to avoid its corrupting influences.
While the story of The Other Lamb is rather straightforward, Szumowska tries to make it more conceptual than it needs to be. She adds quick moments that, while meant to be an insight into Selah’s mind, just become confusing nonsequiturs that distract from an already strong concept. Part of this strong concept is the persistent and obvious images of lambs. Plus, Huisiman looks just like the Jesus splashed across Christian iconography. Szumowska isn’t going for subtlety here and that serves The Other Lamb well. It knows what it is and wants to loudly push its message about feminine repression.
“Szumowska strikes a fine balance between portraying female abuse and empowerment, working to avoid the spectacle of manipulation and instead focusing on the process of breaking one’s faith.”
The Other Lamb is a horrifying portrayal of how young women are treated, and ultimately groomed, by older men to be their puppets. Szumowska strikes a fine balance between portraying female abuse and empowerment, working to avoid the spectacle of manipulation and instead focusing on the process of breaking one’s faith. The Other Lamb is a beautiful and welcome addition to the cult subgenre that works to show the slowly creeping cracks in a male cult leader’s plan and how the women he controls work to reclaim their independence.
The Other Lamb celebrated its World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 6. TIFF 2019 runs September 5-September 15 in Toronto, Ontario and you can find all of our reviews, interviews, and news HERE, as well as on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!