Getting out of a Cult Turns Hazy and Visually Cryptic in ‘The Other Lamb’ 

Cults are back in vogue right now in horror films and thrillers. They’ve become an eerie, convenient decoration to place characters in bizarre environments. “The Other Lamb” follows this trend, using the idea of a wandering band of devotees to a false messiah to craft a lot of atmosphere and unnerving imagery. It’s almost a stream of consciousness experiment that works for the first five minutes, made by a filmmaker who has an obvious love for images. But it’s an easy slip between having faith in your visuals and becoming merely pretentious.

The film is set deep in a wet forest where Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is a teenager who has come of age within a cult led by a man called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). Made entirely of women, Shepherd’s followers adhere to a dress code that looks taken from Puritan times. They sing hymns, live in cabins and gather to hear Shepherd spout a kind of neo-Christian dirge. As behooves a cult messiah, Shepherd also sleeps with all the women, randomly choosing his partner for the evening. Selah has yet to be chosen because she’s waiting to have her first period. One night the police show up at Shepherd’s door and the leader orders the women to pack up and prepare for a long journey. Off they go into the wilderness, making campgrounds and waiting to see who has Shepherd’s favor. But Selah is growing restless inside and ensuing incidents make her question this community she’s belonged to for so long. 

Director Malgorzata Szumowska seems to be aiming for a tone poem with “The Other Lamb,” preferring ambiance over straight narrative. Assuming the finished version is close to the screenplay by C.S. McMullen, the film mostly succeeds in conjuring memorable images about cult life. How Shepherd began his movement, what his amalgam of Christian philosophy is all about or where he even plucked the members from is simply never explained. Even the age gaps between the characters are a bit hazy. Shepherd apparently knew and presumably slept with Selah’s mother, but Shepherd looks no older than early 30s (actor Michiel Huisman is himself 39). He also doesn’t have the true charismatic power of a brainwasher like John Hawkes in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” where subtly is part of the seduction. Shepherd looks more like a bad Jesus imitator, overplaying the gestures and arm waving. 

The more intriguing aspects of McMullen’s screenplay hint at exploring the patriarchal, misogynist nature of a cult composed of one man ruling over several women. Shepherd’s teachings emphasize a medievalist idea where a woman’s menstruation cycle is a punishment for “Eve’s sin.” Once a member of the group reaches the age where the cycle begins, Shepherd begins selecting them for sex. One member in particular, Sarah (Denise Gough), seems more cynical and resistant, but there’s not much else done with the dynamics between her and the messiah. Selah’s own questioning comes across better in moments of silence, when she wanders the woods and seems to be going through an internal struggle. Raffey Cassidy has been in some notable films lately such as “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “Vox Lux,” and here she’s allowed to show off a dark maturity. She has the uncertainty of a teenager mixed with the realization her world is all based on the lies of one man. There’s little dialogue in general in this film and Cassidy stands out even as we’re left in a haze about her own character’s story. A cryptic scene finds her lookalike riding in a car down a highway, as she looks out the window at her cult member self. Is it a twin? A flashback? 

Where “The Other Lamb” achieves a stronger effect is in its images. Szumowska and cinematographer Michal Englert place the cult within misty woods with gushing, threatening waterfalls. Moments flow into hallucinatory visions of bloody animals and drowning women. Shepherd will stare at Selah across a campfire in dreamlike shots and one recurring sequence of a naked woman in the forest has a fairy tale feel. The very final shot of the movie is a direct reference to the title, and it looks wonderfully gothic. Yet “The Other Lamb” joins a recent crop of similar, slightly pretentious films like “The Lodge” and “It Comes at Night” where texture is given priority over story. These movies have a way of conjuring a palpable atmosphere, but what they want to say, or any clarity becomes the equivalent of a Rorschach test. 

It’s easy to admire the technical eye of “The Other Lamb,” which proves you don’t need massive budgets to look alluring. Szumowska directs this one like early Nicolas Winding Refn in films like “Valhalla Rising,” where the visuals are almost enough to make the experience worthwhile. But when dealing with matters of messiahs and blind faith, a film should offer something bolder than empty prayers.

The Other Lamb” premieres April 3 on digital platforms and VOD.