Studio: Strand Releasing
Director: Amat Escalante
Writer: Amat Escalante, Gibran Portela
Producer: Jaime Romandia, Fernanda de la Peza, Amat Escalante
Stars: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesus Meza, Eden Villavicencio
The sexual lives and intimate relationships of four people are psychologically influenced by a mysterious tentacle creature.
You’ll hear a number of different terms tossed around to describe Amat Escalante’s psychosexual Spanish-language film “The Untamed.” Poster art adjectives praise the movie as “intoxicating,” “unforgettable,” “wild.” Armchair IMDb critics add “entrancing,” “challenging,” “unique,” “unhinged.”
For my own one-word summary, I’d rather wade in a gutter of to-the-point layman’s terms. Without intending to take anything away from the movie’s cinematicism, an inelegant way to reductively encapsulate the sentiments above would be to simply say, “The Untamed” is “weird.”
You’ll also hear “The Untamed” categorized as “sci-fi,” “thriller,” and/or “horror,” none of which are entirely accurate. More on that in a minute.
Most of the movie occupies itself with telenovela melodrama minus soap opera theatrics. Day in the life activities include parents Alejandra and Angel eating breakfast with their two boys before dropping them off at school, then attending to their respective jobs on a candy factory assembly line and in a field working construction. With their troubled marriage bereft of passion, homophobic Angel seeks excitement in a homosexual affair with Alejandra’s brother Fabian. Fabian however, just met Veronica, an emotionally vacant woman in search of sexual satisfaction she can only achieve through unorthodox means. All the while, everyone deals with individual introspection while going out for drinks, reclining on couches, or tending to other everyday minutiae.
However, hanging over all of these mundane movements is a pall of that aforementioned weirdness. This is because the first full scene of “The Untamed” features a nude woman having sex with a purple tentacle. From that moment onward, no matter how straightforwardly innocuous anything may seem, there is always a disorienting sense distorting perspective, because you know “The Untamed” plays by unusual rules.
Somewhere in a remote cabin, an older couple harbors an alien lifeform, an unintended stowaway on a crashed meteorite. The closest this creature has to a definition is, as one half of its caretaking team puts it, a manifestation of man’s primitive side in its most basic state. It isn’t a xenomorph or a Heinlein bug. It’s a mental construct made flesh, indirectly able to amplify carnality. Its seductive influence changes the relationships of everyone who engages in an intimate encounter with it, and it is about to irrevocably alter Alejandra, Angel, Fabian, and Veronica without ever speaking or leaving its room.
Maybe now it is a little clearer why, despite having an extraterrestrial entity at its epicenter, “The Untamed” doesn’t fulfill traditional expectations for sci-fi or horror, unless we are speaking about the horror of the human condition, where fragile imbalances between animal instincts and sentient desires complicate interactions with others of our species. That’s the true exploratory journey “The Untamed” takes. “The Untamed” contains a creature, but it serves only as a distant thematic metaphor motivating arthouse drama to be ambiguously entrancing for those tuned to its dreamy personality study, or frustratingly indecisive for anyone who prefers a concrete foundation for fiction.
Performances are terrifically organic. An unrehearsed quality in the tone captures fractured working class lives with voyeuristic intimacy. But even with an extraordinary element tapping its tentacles at the periphery, everything still reads as routinely ordinary, mired in ennui that has as much chance of draining a viewer’s attention as it does of capturing it, depending on personal connections to the artistry underneath.
Let’s put it this way. I glibly wrote in my notes while watching the movie that “The Untamed” is the kind of film mainstream audiences don’t gravitate towards, yet you could be certain that a chin-stroking Village Voice critic would champion it as “provocative.” Unsurprisingly, I discovered afterwards that the Village Voice did in fact award “The Untamed” a 90/100 score according to Metacritic, although I have no idea if the word “provocative” was included in the review.
I’ve used several objectively declarative sentences to describe “The Untamed” because frankly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the experience subjectively. I’ve pondered possibilities of what Escalante’s visual essay means to say about people and again, I don’t feel as though I emerged out the other side with any illumination I didn’t possess beforehand. But I’m awarding three out of five stars because I can still sense intangible qualities inherent in the film’s unsettled nature, even if I can’t consciously connect to them.
There is no guarantee that any given viewer will be able to decipher the director’s intentions either, or that everyone will engage with the film in the same way. In that regard, maybe the movie is a reflection of its creature, a bewildering vessel capable of creating pleasure or pain in tandem with its partner, dependent upon the mindset one brings to the encounter.
NOTE: The film’s Spanish title is “La region salvaje.”
Review Score: 60