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A Young Cult Member Turns Against Her Flock In 'The Other Lamb'

Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) and his flock in <em>The Other Lamb</em>.
IFC Films
Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) and his flock in The Other Lamb.

If you're going to put yourself at the head of a modern-day religious cult, you have to look the part, and Michiel Huisman, as the fanatical "Shepherd" in the horror-adjacent drama The Other Lamb, is right out of Central Casting. As the self-appointed leader of "The Flock," a rogue sect in search of "Eden" in the Pacific Northwest, Huisman looks like the cover model for Messianic Weekly, Christ-like in his beard and flowing locks, but with an unmistakably sinful smolder. Huisman had played Daario Naharis, warrior and lover to Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, so his allure is ironclad and battle-tested.

As the one ram among ewes — a metaphor that drapes the film like a woolen coat — the Shepherd leads two generations of women, about 20 total, through the power of his personal magnetism and a set of rituals and laws that reinforce his supremacy, often by pitting members of his congregation against one another. It's a fragile state of affairs, even for a man of his dark charisma: The fruits of his vaguely defined religion are obscure, some distant dream of transcendence that's always off in a horizon somewhere, and in the meantime, the women are bound to a life of austerity and servitude, and jockeying for his favor.

In her English-language debut, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, working from a script by Australian author Catherine S. McMullen, explores terrain already well-covered by films like The Witch, Midsommar, Sound of My Voice, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, or the TV show Big Love, which was also about life among sister-wives under a dogmatic patriarchy. Szumowska and McMullen attempt to distinguish their film through a rush of hallucinatory visions, rife with symbolic images of sacrificial lambs and feminine "impurities." But in reinforcing their themes of religious and cultural oppression, they hit the nail too squarely on the head.

As The Other Lamb opens, The Flock is living a modest agrarian life in the woods, with the women sleeping six to a bed in small cabins, the Shepherd alone in larger space with a porch, and another cabin with a communal table for meals and psychological head games. The women are divided into "wives" and "daughters," and wear color-coded ankle-length dresses in kind. Both groups serve the Shepherd in various ways, and the only significant difference between them is age and their eligibility to receive his "grace," which is to say share his bed. The daughters will all become wives some day.

The teenage Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is coming of age as a devotee, preparing herself for womanhood and for a more intimate relationship to the Shepherd, who's been giving her more attention. When the police turn up one night and threaten to evict them all from their patch of the forest, the entire Flock has to pack up and begin a long journey inland, where the Shepherd has promised Eden, but is pretty plainly just improvising. The difficulty of the move, combined with her conversations with an older wife (Denise Gough) who's become a pariah, start to stir some doubt in Selah's head about her master's legitimacy.

"Of all my children, you're the purest in your faith," the Shepherd tells Selah, a line that both grooms her for sexual violation and measures her by the yardstick that keeps order in The Flock. Shame becomes a weapon that the women use on each other, and the film angles toward a collective realization that they all have a common enemy and it's the man who's created the culture to his benefit. It isn't difficult to read the film as an allegory for society at large, particularly when it comes to religious orthodoxy, and Szumowska and McMullen haven't done enough to color in the details.

The Other Lamb gets the most out of its verdant locale, which suggests an Eden shrouded by darkness and wicked portent, and Huisman makes a persuasive monster, like a con artist who's so narcissistic that he's started to believe his own con. But there isn't enough attention paid to how The Flock operates or a convincing arc to how the headstrong Selah can bring herself to turn against a cult that's she's known since birth. The shock effects of Selah's visions may have a visceral punch, but they don't add the kinds of detail the film so desperately needs. The cult represents the patriarchy without amounting to a specific world of its own.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.

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