The Untamed (2017; Amat Escalante)
By Daniel Barnes
Here comes more dreary provocation from Heli director Escalante. This time Escalante offers an intriguing but no less deadening blend of sexually charged sci-fi and kitchen-sink social drama.
Impressive newcomer Ruth Ramos stars as Alejandra, the flustered and unsatisfied wife to Ángel, a macho scumbag who is secretly sleeping with Alejandra’s gay brother Fabián. Creeping in from the margins comes Verónica (Simone Bucio), a strangely soothing outsider who worms her way into Fabián’s life.
Verónica eventually entices Fabián to a cabin in the woods that houses a strange presence. When Fabián is found dead, Ángel gets accused of the murder. Nonetheless, Alejandra finds herself drawn towards that same odd presence in the woods. With sexy results! (Not really, it’s super gross.)
The Untamed earns maximum points for sheer “What-the-shit?!”-ness, offering an unholy blend of Cronenberg-ian body horror and domestic misery porn. However, it all feels strangely empty. As was the case with Heli, there is a potentially fascinating and wholly original film flickering on the fringes of The Untamed. Unfortunately, Escalante’s navel-gazing sadism still takes center stage.
MY ORIGINAL REVIEW OF AMAT ESCALANTE’S PREVIOUS FILM, HELI:
By Daniel Barnes
The term “Southern miserablism” has been bandied about lately in film culture as a way of describing films like Mud and Joe, movies that roll around in a fetid atmosphere of Deep South suffering and abuse.
Amat Escalante’s unforgiving and largely unrewarding Heli, which won Best Director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is a grueling exercise in a new-fangled sort of “Mexican miserablism.” It unfolds as slowly and bleakly and cruelly as possible in an unnamed Mexican pit of hell, as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story unexpectedly thrusts a working-class family into the drug war.
Heli is mostly shot in a sickly gray-green hue, and while brutal violence and a bleak tone hardly feel out of place in a story of Mexican drug cartels, the film also has a somewhat self-righteous lack of personality. Even worse, Escalante’s film is just as likely to wallow in festival circuit clichés as it is scenes of graphic genital torture and dog murder.
Long, slow, static driving and bike-riding scenes are one of the favored overused time-fillers here. Escalante also defiantly disavows any notions of character-building – all we ever know about the titular protagonist is that he is quiet and determined and loves his family; about the rest of the characters, we learn even less.
The movie opens on a long shot of Heli riding unconscious in the back of a truck cab with duct tape over his mouth and a boot pressed against his head. When they finally arrive at their location, Heli is pulled from the truck and seemingly hanged from a bridge with his pants pulled down around his ankles.
From there, Heli circles back to the events leading up to that dehumanizing moment of wanton butchery, and that’s when things start to get ugly.
On the fringes of all this sadistic navel-gazing, Escalante paints a fascinating portrait of the drug war, with cartels and paramilitary groups and police officers seemingly indistinguishable in their corruption.
There are also a handful of strange and disturbing images that have imprinted in my mind, and I liked how the movie gradually coalesced from random slices of life into a compelling narrative, but overall it’s too gratuitous in every direction. In one scene, a young cadet is forced by his superiors to roll around in his puke, ostensibly in the name of personal betterment, and Escalante forces that same level of it’s-good-for-you torment on his audience.