Cults are fertile ground for exploring gender dynamics in a vacuum, and so The Other Lamb, helmed by Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska, is perfectly fitted to the conditions of insularity. Bordering horror and psychological thriller, the film meanders through a crisp aesthetic, first seducing the viewer into the remote and idealized country lives of the Shepherd (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman), his red-frocked “wives,” and blue-frocked “daughters.” The film loses its grip as it becomes more apparent that its ideas, and not only its characters, are debilitated by a sealed-off worldview.
The adolescent and devout Selah (Raffey Cassidy), worships her Shepherd, ostensibly her father and also her crush. According to the film’s logic, the Shepherd finds his wives in the modern world, lost souls yearning for safety, salvation, food, shelter, and ordered life with scripts and dogma ripe for the picking—typical cult stuff. But Selah, a daughter, can’t be a wife… or can she? That’s the primary tension the film offers, but by leaning heavily on psychological illegibility as a kind of aesthetic, themes of incest, misogyny, and domestic violence are sublimated into a coming-of-age story where horror is rendered relentlessly ethereal.
The Shepherd models himself after Jesus and is unoriginal in countless other ways—his storytelling is vague and repetitive, his cruelty is a calculated form of control that depends on his “grace,” which he only gives to his wives. And every cult of women led by a man must be based on notions of purity and dirtiness, so there is a “broken thing,” a hardened wife cast-off, unable to commune with the group, living in a hut and trailing behind on a long journey on foot. The Irish actress Denise Gough plays Sarah, the cast-off (American) cult wife who no longer knows herself, and so allows herself to be physically mutilated by the Shepherd, who believes she is too vain. Sarah is the film’s most compelling character, and The Other Lamb only ever finds its focus, and stronger set of ideas, when she speaks.
But a bias toward youth leaves all potential for change with the daughters, who have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that their only hope of recourse is to have some part of their sheltered lives contradicted so harshly that they have no option but to revolt. The film toys with the possibility of an uprising, but rather than building it throughout each of the daughter characters, the potential for revolution is vested in a new leader: Selah. She serves as a kind of chosen one—her mother was special, and now she is too. Rather than questioning the fundamental hierarchical structure of the cult, The Other Lamb seems to only question that it is a man leading it.
In this way, the film fulfills an increasingly common liberal impulse with period or cult movies: an incomplete revisionism with perhaps a bit of tokenistic racial diversity to shake up its feminism-lite approach. One of the wives is black, and like a few of the other wives, we never hear a word from her, except during a group song during a funeral. As it turns out, the Shepherd is a quietly ruthless misogynist and abuser, but he’s happy to have one black wife, and as a result, a black daughter, who we never see him pick on or belittle directly. If we’re supposed to believe that this cult exists in the modern U.S., which one sequence of passersby in a station wagon seems to suggest, then the token black wife depiction falls suspiciously flat. It appears that Szumowska and screenwriter C.S. McMullen are not willing to examine white supremacist modes of gendered oppression but instead would prefer to seal their world off in order to accomodate a limited vision.
The Other Lamb doesn’t work as horror either—its visual language is too self-obsessed, too cloying, and too derivative to be truly unsettlingly or even basically scary. Instead, the film becomes a series of incomplete dreamy gestures, a Cliff’s Notes study on patriarchal supremacy and religious fanaticism with an entirely unearned optimism—fitting for our girlboss era.