Director Amat Escalante
THE UNTAMED (La región salvaje) B
Mexico Denmark France Germany Norway Switzerland (98 mi) 2016 d: Amat Escalante Official Site
Quite a shift from his earlier film Heli (2013), a blisteringly realistic look at the narco drug trafficking war in Mexico which won the Best Direction prize at Cannes. At least initially, one might have guessed this was a Carlos Reygadas film, as it enters a starkly unique, other worldly sensory minefield, like something out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), where a meteorite from outer space has landed on earth, creating a wilderness zone, or wild region, where mind-altering powers affects the libido of those humans (and animals) that come in contact with this unknown mystery, very similar to Alexander Zeidovich’s Target (Mishen) (2011), another Russian sci-fi flick where a wilderness area in the outer regions of Mongolia similarly effects human behavior, who suddenly engage in animalistic sex, with disastrous side effects. What’s truly remarkable in this film is the brilliant sound design by Sergio Diaz, Vincent Arnardi, and Raúl Locatelli, as the strange and mysterious effects all come from the eerie sounds that permeate throughout this film, creating suspense and indescribable tension. If this kind of mood was sustained throughout, this might be some kind of masterpiece, but the hazards of the real world intrude, making this more of a special effects film. The mix of countries involved in this film tell you something about how films are made these days, as it’s a collaborative process, borrowing from the expertise of specialized technical units, which in this case were provided by Danish special effects teams that have a history of working with Lars von Trier. Co-written by the director and Gibrán Portela, the origins of the film come from combining two local newspaper stories from Guanajuato, Mexico, one where a young woman was raped in the woods, then was subjected to a stream of victim-shaming, where all the rumors and gossip blamed her for what happened, while little was mentioned about the perpetrator who went to jail. In a separate story, a naked man’s body was found floating in an isolated stream, where the bold headline above the salacious picture reads, “FAGGOT IS FOUND DROWNED.” This films taps the depths of homophobia and male chauvinism, prominent elements that exist within the predominately macho male Mexican culture, where women and gays are often targets of abuse, but the surrounding communities show little outrage, despite the presence and influence of the Catholic church, where in 2016 the Mexico State Attorney investigated femicides at a rate 32% greater than in the same period of 2015, while in Mexico there is also a widespread explosion of homophobic murders.
Escalante, born in Spain but raised in Mexico, also won the Best Director Silver Lion at Venice in 2016, an award he shared with Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise (Rai) (2016), though both films failed to live up to their promise. All we know from the outset is that Veronica (Simone Bucio) enters a strangely altered world engulfed in a cloud of fog, yet the ethereal experience is one of unsurpassed pleasure, leaving her in a state of ecstasy, but also wounded, as she was bitten just above the hip by some sort of alien creature. In the hospital, she is treated by a young doctor named Fabián (Edén Villavicencio), who shows concern for her welfare, but she’s unable to reveal what actually happened, instead saying she was bitten by a dog, where they contemplate a series of extremely painful rabies shots. Simultaneously, the film cuts to a relationship in turmoil, where Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is going through the motions with her domineering husband Angel (Jesús Meza), but it feels like there’s little connection between them. Working with an outdoor road crew, Angel likes to drink heavily, exhibiting a distinctly hostile view towards gays, claiming he wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to one, yet we soon discover he’s having a passionate affair with Fabián. From the opening scene, Escalante withholds nothing, revealing raw and graphic details of sexual encounters, where in each case there are hidden consequences. With both Alejandra and Fabián, Angel’s mood seems to shift from affection to outright hostility, as he’s a guy with anger issues, often exploding at the slightest thing, then overreacting, exhibiting the behavior of a macho predator. His mindset grows dangerous when Fabián mentions they’re through, stalking him in the hospital parking lot, literally corralling him like you would a wild animal. In this manner, he may be a mirror image of the mysterious creature, but we’re still unsure at this point, as the creature promises a euphoria that can’t be explained. What’s also peculiar is an elderly couple living in a countryside home sheltering the creature, behaving like scientists, exploring the data they are accumulating on the creature, but they’re not behaving like scientists, feeling overly protective, showing little objectivity. While Veronica wishes to return to their home, this couple thinks otherwise, thinking the previous incident could grow worse. Yet Veronica remains under a spell, actually introducing Fabián to the creature sometime before the incident with Angel in the parking lot, telling him “I think it’s going to like you.” When Fabián’s naked body is discovered in a pool of standing water by a farmer, they’re shocked to discover he’s still alive, but in a coma, his face and body bruised and battered, where Alejandra visits him, unable to comprehend what’s really happened.
Alejandra later discovers a stream of offensive, profanity-laden vulgarity on Angel’s phone directed towards her brother Fabián shortly before his body was discovered, calling the police, who found another witness from the hospital observing a heated argument between them, which got physical, leading to Angel’s arrest. With that in mind, Alejandra thinks she might make a new start in the world, taking her two kids and perhaps moving somewhere else. Further instilling this idea is a situation at their school where Angel’s grandmother unexpectedly picks them up and takes them to her home, refusing to allow the kids to see her, explaining she’s the reason the police arrested their father. Taking matters into her own hands, using a brick to break through a closed window, Alejandra retrieves her kids, telling them their grandmother is loco, telling them terrible things. Through repeated hospital visits to see her brother, Alejandra runs into Veronica, who also introduces her to the creature, which is where the film literally goes bat-shit crazy. While the production design is excellent, this time the creature is in full view to the audience, a slimy, snake-like entity where she becomes synonymous with Fay Wray being delivered to King Kong (1933), or Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), who also has sex with a slimy, octopus-like alien creature with many tentacles. But when we see them in the throes of sex, it is much more like BARBARELLA (1968) than anything else, as it seems preposterous, like an adolescent dream, yet it’s a sexual fantasy of unlimited fulfillment that simply defies belief, especially considering how hideous the creature is in each instance. This time, however, it is accompanied not only with an ominous sound design that suggests foreboding, but with a truly bizarre scene of animals fornicating in the woods, as if the wilderness is possessed by an unseen mythical spirit that rules over all. However, an oppressive feeling emanating from this supernatural creature is hard to miss, coming from outside all earthly realms, yet the internalized dread surrounding each incident is very real, becoming even more ominous over time, as the audience can sense the kind of effect it has on everyone involved. Perhaps the creepiest incident in the film, however, is Angel’s family springing him from jail, bribing the judge, calling in a favor, where it’s obviously not about justice, but what you can get away with. Money talks, and the rich, apparently, can do whatever they want, urging Angel to move somewhere else where nobody knows him. The scene at home with his parents reveals a house filled with guns and trophy animal heads, the source of his machismo. Unfortunately Angel doesn’t follow his family’s advice, ruled instead by his own primal instincts, bullying his way into yet another confrontation with Alejandra that goes wildly out of control, turning creepy, even absurd, adding yet another layer of atmospheric tension, but never really elevating into something more, regretfully stuck in its own malaise, though it’s likely meant to be a socio-political satire on current conditions in Mexico, where the presence of the monster in the wilderness suggests an unseen affliction, like the spirit of machismo on the loose, that promises a world of unearthly pleasure, but uncontrollably delivers more harm than good, like an experiment gone wrong, including a stream of accumulating dead bodies.