The Untamed (2016)
Written & Directed by Amat Escalante
In a cabin in the woods, far from the city, live an old scientist and his wife. Inside their barn, they house something fantastic and terrific. But if that’s where you think the film will spend most of its time, then you are wrong. After a teasing opening sequence, shot with beautiful horror, we follow Veronica, a young woman enthralled with the thing in the barn. Veronica is injured after an encounter and meets nurse Fabian. She introduces Fabian to this same object of pleasure and revulsion. Fabian’s sister, Alejandra is married and dealing with the increasing drudgery of domestic life and the distance of her husband Angel. Angel is secretly having an affair with Fabian behind his wife’s back, but the latter breaks it off after feeling his devotion grow to the thing. It becomes very apparent that this story will only end tragically.
The Untamed is a film that is like a dream, or a nightmare even. It keeps you at just the right amount of distance away, yet holds you in a profoundly hypnotic gaze. Interstitials scenes of narrow dark alleyways hint at the idea that something is always lurking on the periphery. The music adds to the sense of dread, helped by a slow-burning sense of horror. The opening shot of the film puts us at a point of confusion: A meteor floating deep in the cold black of space. The movie won’t come back to that until around the halfway mark, but it is an important point to start from. Later, we see the crater left by that rock when it struck the earth and gaze inside to see one of the most jarring, unsettling moments I have glimpsed on film in a long time.
Director Amat Escalante does a splendid job in balancing the horror elements with the mundane and domestic. Most of the film spends its time with the human characters and work to increase the tension of the unknown and amplify the emotional resonance of the horrific when it does happen in act three. In many ways, The Untamed offers a disturbing counterpoint to the fairy tale sexual awakening of The Shape of Water. Here the creature is without human attributes, something truly alien and otherworldly. The character connects with it, not from a sense of openness and welcoming, but because they are so hollow and empty. The creature fills this emptiness, but not in a meaningful way and with dire consequences.
Reportedly, Escalante was inspired to write this film after reading a headline that read “Faggot Drowned.” It was a news story covering the investigation of a gay man who was found dead in a rural river. Escalante was so struck by the profound homophobia the journalist conveyed and the sense that these feelings were shared by the community that he felt a need to write something about this event. The result is a motion picture about gender and sexuality, particularly humanity’s fears surrounding the uncertainty of these things. The object of everyone’s desire in neutral and unfeeling, it consumes and gives and can destroy if it so chooses.
The Untamed lives in the world of Cronenberg and Under the Skin. It is a drama about people that uses body horror to tell its story. We, like many characters in the film, become entranced with the mystery of what is out in the woods and film keeps us at arm’s length, essentially seducing us into following it down a very dark and twisted path. What we find there will be both hypnotic and painful, and what we learn is entirely up to us.