Despite its surreal science-fiction horror sensibilities, there’s no denying what Mexican director Amat Escalante and co-screenwriter Gibrán Portela have brewed up with The Untamed (La Región Salvaje): an examination of the destructive force of the drive for sexual satisfaction. The hypocrisy of primal urges versus personal beliefs and an obligation to social expectations clash among a family with the arrival of a stranger who introduces a tentacled sex monster into their midst. Escalante handles it with an austere style that subverts suspenseful horror movie tropes while highlighting the weakness of humanity in the face of temptations that hardly need explanation.
Opening with a sinister-looking meteor floating in the vacuum of space that does not hurtle through the stars but makes a gradual turn. It’s triangular with a horned appearance and two large black pits where eyes would be, as if the devil incarnate is twisting to meet the audience’s gaze. Before it does, however, there’s a smash cut to blackness and a fade in to the film’s title card: “La Región Salvaje,” which roughly translated could be “the savage region.” Then we see a closeup of Verónica (Simone Bucio) in a darkened wood shed in the throes of ecstasy. As the camera pulls out, she is revealed to be naked except for thigh-high stockings and shoes, as a pink, snake-like thing withdraws from between her legs and over the top of her thigh. Post-coital tristesse overtakes her face as the serpentine thing slithers off screen, and a woman’s voice tells her, “That’s enough, Verónica.”
As weird as this implicated sex scene might be, The Untamed is not so much about the monster/sex object, which largely remains out of sight for the duration of the movie, but about the primal drive for satisfaction and its destructive force to both oneself and relationships. This is apparent when we meet the family at the center of the movie. The matriarch is a young mother, Ale (Ruth Ramos). She has two little boys and a husband who works construction, Ángel (Jesús Meza). We meet the family as she scolds one of the boys for eating chocolate even though he is allergic to it. The father asks the boy whether the chocolate was worth it, and the boy nods eagerly.
Ángel is later seen wrestling with a colleague outdoors, on their job site. Reaching for his crotch, he teases, “Let me see that worm.” They are interrupted when another co-worker warns that their boss is approaching. Later at a bar, Ángel and Ale’s brother, Fabián (Eden Villavicencio) lock eyes before Ángel starts singing with with drunken colleagues at the top of their lungs some rather grim lyrics: “Life is worth nothing/It always begins with crying/And with crying it ends.” Soon enough, Ángel and Fabián are naked and alone, in what is probably Fabián’s apartment, taking turns humping each other. They don’t say anything before a smash cut to a slow panning shot of a graffitied and decrepit alleyway. Including a few other scenes, by now it’s clear an unruly streak among these people has been established as far as urges pursued with abandon in search of fleeting ecstasy.
The camera often slowly zooms or pans throughout it all, as if drawn in to the images of primal actions. Escalante uses the same leering style on the stillness of the trees and the landscape, including one drifting aerial shot that feels straight out of Kubrick’s opening shot for The Shining. After all, as explained by the couple who harbor the alien in their shed, it arrived via meteor, leaving a crater in the earth where all sorts of creatures convened to reproduce at once. But the film isn’t only about sex. The id of Ale’s kids’ brutal questioning is on full display after the disappearance of their father in their lives. That their questions cut through the obfuscations of the mother and reveal lies with stark clarity speaks to the power of their primordial, innocent intellect. Truth need not be spoken to traumatize, after all.
The actors, who are all for the most part fresh faces on the scene, give casual, low-key and sometimes pained performances, suited to the film’s restrained style. Though his film has a quiet approach, Escalante has a confrontational style. More direct than his Mexican counterpart Carlos Reygadas, the film’s earthy realism occasionally disrupts its meta themes. Sometimes you feel like questioning certain actions by these characters, which occasionally alienates the audience from the film’s bellicose style. Still, those moments are forgivable as The Untamed lurches toward a haunting finale that never betrays its grim nihilism.
The Untamed runs 98 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitled and is not rated. It is currently showing exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For a list of screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website and select the “Screenings” tab. Strand Releasing shared an online screener link for the purpose of this review.