THE OTHER LAMB is a sedately paced horror film about an unnamed religious cult lead by the Shepard, a man who wields complete control over a small group of women. The adult women are dressed in red dresses, shades of The Handmaid’s Tale, and are called Wives. Yes, they are called Wives for exactly the reason you suspect they are as the sect is polygamous. The younger women, mostly teenage girls and one child, are dressed in an aquamarine blue and called Daughters. As with most cults, the Shepard is first seen as a charismatic and loving Christ-like figure and the girls and women are dutiful and happy. Ultimately, the Shepard is revealed to be a manipulative and cruel abuser and one Daughter, Selah, tries to deal with her feelings of desire for the Shepard and her growing disillusionment with who he really is and her life in the cult.
THE OTHER LAMB is directed by Małgorzata Szumowska from a script by C.S. McMullen. The script was on both the Black List and The Blood List, so it is well regarded and for good reason. The film and the script do a very good job of exploring what it might be like to be part of a religious cult and what kind of manipulation and fear goes into binding human beings to a cult in the first place. When I say it is sedately paced, I don’t mean that in a bad way. This is a character study that is focused on the everyday life of a group of women who are completely brainwashed. It takes a while to slowly start peeling the layers of Shepard’s lies and his remorseless methods of control. It does this through the eyes of Selah who is quite clearly feeling devoted admiration and lust for the Shepard herself. She goes from a self-satisfied favorite to a wary and rebellious foe, but the film and its characterization of Selah and Sarah, the “Cursed wife” – who is confined to a hut where menstruating women are sent because they are believed to be unclean, show that a cult leader has the kind of control over a person’s mind that they no longer know anything but the cult and don’t have the courage or the will to leave because of the methods of control the Shepard has used on them. It answers the question of why abused wives and children or cult members don’t just leave. The part of their personality and will that would normally refuse to accept such abuse has been broken and perverted by the techniques that such leaders use. They draw you in with love, make you dependent on them, and convince you that the outside world is bad. When all else fails, they use fear and physical abuse to keep you there. You are no longer sure that you can survive without them or that life outside of the cult really exists. A part of your mind has been hobbled, the part that is your ability to make your own choices.
The film succeeds in making the unnamed countryside where the cult lives separate from the real world. It almost seems occasionally like they might be in an older time, but they aren’t. This backs up the characterization by removing these women and their leader from the modern world entirely. Even when you occasionally see a car or a road, it’s like the cult is on the other side of a glass pane and you feel like you are part of their world as well. The Old Testament ideas of the Shepard don’t seem as otherworldly as a car driving by. Selah looks at the car, not with envy, but a detached observation as if it is something that is so strange to her that she can’t comprehend what it is.
The direction is superb as all the performances are believable and real even when the characters have strange feelings and commit unsympathetic acts. The film takes you slowly through Selah’s coming of age and coming to the realization of how she has been betrayed. Raffey Cassidy (The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, Snow White and the Huntsman) is powerful as Selah. She has the strength that the other characters tell her she has and has that special quality that would lead someone like the Shepard to be drawn to her. She is a bright light. Michiel Huisman (Game Of Thrones, The Haunting Of Hill House) as the Shepard can seem open and warm and then cruel and threatening and capable of violence. Denise Gough (Colette) as Sarah is at first seems dangerous and angry but slowly begins to reveal the truth about the Shepard to Selah. Her characterization of a disappointed and formerly wilful woman who no longer has faith in herself hurts. As the film progresses, you can see the hardship and pain in the women and the girls’ faces. You see their despair. There is also a strong aspect of symbolism with Selah imagining quickly cut scenes of drowning and violence. There is an angry ram who challenges Selah more than once, who I can only see as a symbol of the Shepard himself. He’s not quite Black Phillip, but this is a different film. You can guess who the other lamb is.
The cinematography of Michal Englert, who previously worked with the director on her feature Body, has the symbolic shots that are painterly and wide vistas, chilled and desolate, that suggest the cold and brutal world of the cult and perhaps the emptiness inside of the Shepard. The shots of the forest seem to enclose the cult and the women inside that other world. The scenes of nature, where the cult members mostly live, should be beautiful, but they seem as forbidding and vacant as deep space. It’s great work and totally in tune with the thematic content of the film. The film leaves a lot of empty space in the shot, between characters, and even dialogue. It is confident enough to leave space unfilled and let things move forward in its own time. It is a lot like time spent in a desperate situation, like a worldwide pandemic, when your options to move or live your life as you choose are limited or even inaccessible to you. When choosing to go outside of that center of your world is actively dangerous to you.
I’ve heard people say, and this will date this review, that the month of March 2020 seems to last forever. On a certain level, now you might understand a little of how someone in an abusive situation feels. Days feel like they take weeks and it seems like their current situation might never end. They know no other life. After a while, all you know is the confines of the situation and, like prisoners in a jail, you fear the thought of even trying to leave. The soundtrack by Rafaël Leloup and Pawl Mykietyn is unobtrusive but appropriate. It is heavier on strings and much use is made of traditional religious songs that the women and girls sing.
THE OTHER LAMB is a careful and brutal examination of life as a cult member and the inner workings and manipulations of a religious cult. It has ice in its veins and brutal force moving in slow motion that will not let you escape unscathed. THE OTHER LAMB arrives on Digital and Cable VOD this Friday, April 3rd.