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Noomi Rapace guides 'Lamb,' a woolly, low-key supernatural thriller from Iceland

Noomi Rapace guides 'Lamb,' a woolly, low-key supernatural thriller from Iceland

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Noomi Rapace in "Lamb"

Blinding snow, heavy breathing from an unseen force: The first few seconds of “Lamb” suggest Liam Neeson has returned for another wintry exercise in human-on-human revenge.

But no! There’s nothing predictable or formulaic about this masterly exercise in incremental, calmly framed tension and uneasy human/animal coexistence. Even with a slight misjudgment in the final minutes — it feels incomplete, somehow — it’s the most assured debut in the supernatural thriller genre (it’s not a horror movie) since “The Witch” five years ago.

“Lamb” comes from first-time feature film director/co-writer Valdimar Johannsson. In rural Iceland, married sheep farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guonason) tend their flock, harvest their potatoes and go about their routines in the shadow of their nearby mountain. We’re constantly aware of animals monitoring their every move, especially the watchful farmhouse dog and cat, as well as the pregnant sheep in the barn behind the house.

The film visually withholds key details in its first 30 minutes, but the birth of one particular ewe lamb astonishes Maria and Ingvar into stunned wonderment. We, the audience, already know something the characters don’t: There’s a mysterious spirit roaming the hills and valleys.

The newborn creature, named Ada, moves inside the house with its adoptive parents. (As the trailer indicates, they’ve recently suffered a death in the family.) The move inside is not a comfortable development for the ewe’s sheep mother, nor for Ingvar’s visiting brother (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, the Icelandic Nick Offerman). “She’s not used to strangers,” Ingvar explains at the dinner table, before the audience gets its first good look at Ada. (The title character is rendered as a marvelous combination of digital effects and puppetry.)

From there, screenwriter Johannsson, who co-wrote “Lamb” with the poet and author Sjon, ventures into territory marked both by the deadpan comedy of underreaction and by sincere empathy for all species. That sentence makes the movie sound like an animal rights polemic, but “Lamb” is more transporting than that. Cinematographer Eli Erenson takes fantastic advantage of the natural eeriness of the light and fog and mist. Johannsson, whose mentors include the Hungarian master Bela Tarr, served as executive producer on “Lamb,” and Tarr’s influence can be felt in the steadiness and patience of the camera gaze.

In what is essentially a three-human story (they’re outnumbered by their animal co-stars), Rapace brings the heart and soul to every close-up. I’m pretty touchy as a viewer when it comes to animal pathos, so I was relieved to see how shrewdly “Lamb” tightens the screws without getting cheap or going for the throat, even when the story darkens.

Right now moviegoers as a pandemically addled flock have been sticking mostly to movies like “Venom 2” or “No Time to Die” (already a huge hit overseas). “Lamb” isn’t that kind of attraction. I suggest you see it, if it sounds like your kind of strange.

In theaters Oct. 8.

What “Lamb” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 1:46 • Rating R for some bloody violent images and sexuality/nudity

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