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Other Lamb, The
Although the battle is far from over, especially when it comes to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, the last few years have at least been a transformative period in terms of awareness of the gender imbalance in filmmaking, especially behind the camera. The cultural and systemic oppression of women is also a major factor when it comes to faith or religion, especially within a political landscape that seems to encourage a new fringe ideology or doctrine every day. In theory, The Other Lamb, a film both written and directed by women (C.S. McMullen and Malgorzata Szumowska, respectively) and about women trapped in one of said cults should be a fascinating experience, but the film is so thunderously unsubtle in its metaphor and uninterested in exploring its ideas further than its didactic message that the viewer can probably grasp everything the film has to say just by contemplating the title.
Among the Sisters, the younger followers of Shepherd (Michael Huisman), Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is the cult equivalent of a teacher's pet. The hierarchy is pretty simple -- Shepherd at the top, his Wives below him, and the Sisters at the bottom -- but Selah is often commended on her exceptional faith in Shepherd's word. However, Selah's world is turned upside down by a series of concurrent events: first, when she meets Sarah (Denise Gough), a Wife who has been shunned by the rest of the group and is treated like an outsider; secondly, when her period starts, the blood viewed as the mark of a sinner; and finally when the entire clan is forced to find a new place to call home. Faced with new experiences and information that create cracks in the belief system she's always known, Selah struggles with the possibility that the Shepherd will turn to her as someone who could help him lead in the future.
Right from the beginning, Szumowska and McMullen start hammering away at their primary visual metaphor, which is, of course, sheep and lambs. The film cuts back and forth between them constantly, in case the viewer hasn't grasped the connection. Szumowska supplements this with further, equally on-the-nose visual metaphors: a doll wearing the Wives' customary purple robes with half of its face melted off, Shepherd being carried by the girls in a Christ pose (Szumowska has the restraint not to actually include a shot showing the pose in full, but the comparison is obvious), even a dream sequence where Shepherd cuts a lamb's throat open. The repeated appearances of a ram are slightly more subtle, until of course the movie spells out that metaphor in the dialogue as well.
Thematically, the metaphor is the cult itself, but unlike the visuals, this one's clunky and frustratingly muddled. All McMullen seems to want us to take from the cult is that the structure is oppressive to women, and that Shepherd is obviously a predator, especially as he waits for the girls to come of age so that he can sleep with them, seemingly one-by-one. However, for the metaphor to function, we have to have some notion of how these women view this relationship, beyond it being their entire lives. Where have these women come from? How did Shepherd pick them up? What did he promise them would happen if they listened to him, and what is he manipulating in each of them for them to believe in his wisdom? People who fall prey to toxic beliefs are, of course, largely guided by fear, but knowing that isn't what makes a story about that kind of mindset interesting, it's how fear is being used. Instead, The Other Lamb seems to treat the notion of fear itself being a motivating factor as a revelation, which is about as interesting as saying money corrupts people. In another early scene, a younger girl asks to be told a bedtime story, which she is scolded for (obvious exposition for the audience, and, in the end, set-up for a later scene). This simple exchange raises several questions: Where would children who grew up in this lifestyle even learn about bedtime stories as a tradition? Have children grown up in this lifestyle, and if so, how many? If Selah is awakened by the mere act of womanhood, and all of its followers are women, then how does this cult normally curb the way this might create doubt in devotees like Selah? Was there another Shepherd before this one? The questions go on and on, and The Other Lamb offers no answers.
At the very least, the film, shot by Michal Englert, looks gorgeous (even if the stylistic choices that go with that look are a little uninspired), but Malgorzata stumbles there too, getting wrapped up in visuals over storytelling. The scene in which Selah first gets her period would seem like an obvious place for some real character work by Rafferty, but instead we get a visual flourish, a 360-degree panning shot of a stone-faced Rafferty, blood on her hand, atop a mountain, which looks nice but is devoid of emotion. Malgorzata and McMullen also have a real passion for scenes where Selah watches someone silently from a few feet away, before making eye contact with the person she's watching (usually Shepherd). Perhaps that's indicative of the film's whole philosophy: staring an injustice in the face as a form of commentary.
Shout brings IFC's The Other Lamb to Blu-ray with its poster artwork intact, but I wonder if the reformatting of image has damaged the concept -- I feel like it's a little clearer in the full-size poster that the image depicts Selah, with blood on her face, behind a wire fence. On the cover, it reads more like a design choice at a distance, although closer inspection does reiterate that the lines are part of the photograph and not added by graphic designers. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Other Lamb's 1.78:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is expectedly solid. The film utilizes a cold palette consisting of many grays, dark blues, and blacks (with the occasional hint of red), and yet the color on the disc still looks striking, highlighting the blue of the Daughters' outfits within their subdued landscape. Said outdoor photography looks fantastic, with the layers of the trees creating great depth and dimension. Fine detail is especially excellent throughout, even in wide shots, and various scenes taking place in low light or darkness appear free of compression issues, although there is a slight instability to these scenes -- possibly a hint of digital noise, as the image appears grain-free. One might expect the sound to be just as subdued as the color palette, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track actually has a number of surreal opportunities to show off, including various group scenes where multiple people are talking over one another or at the same time.
The only extra on the disc is an original theatrical trailer for The Other Lamb. Additional trailers for Premature, Olympic Dreams, How to Build a Girl, and The Trip to Greece play before the main menu.
The Other Lamb steadfastly refuses to develop its concept into something more complex, more compelling, more nuanced, and as such becomes a tiresome chore. IFC's Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty good, but lacks any extras. Skip it.
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