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Directed by Amat Escalante
Starring: Ruth Ramos, Jesús Meza, Simone Bucio
Review by Simon Fearn.
It sounds a lot like clickbait cinema: a slice of brooding arthouse about a tentacled beastie in the woods capable of giving unimaginable orgasmic pleasure. Yet, somehow, The Untamed works. What could have been cheap or plain ludicrous becomes an unsettling symbol of sexual repression and regressive politics in Mexico. Horny aliens aside, very real human predicaments are the true subject of this intelligent film.
The Untamed (or La region salvaje to give its Mexican title) is something of a left turn for director Amat Escalante after 2013’s brutal drugs drama Heli. We open with Verónica (Simone Bucio) being pleasured by a tentacle (naturally), but unluckily her intergalactic booty call turns violent. The beast needs another lover, and in the hope of satisfying the extra-terrestrial’s libido, Veró wades into the knottiest of love triangles. Closeted gay man Ángel (Jesús Meza) is having a clandestine affair with his brother-in-law (Eden Villavicencio), while venting his inner tensions on his neglected wife (Ruth Ramos).
A brazenly homophobic headline about the death of a male nurse sparked the idea for The Untamed, and when Escalante was writing the screenplay with Gibrán Portela, there were several drafts without the sci-fi element. Clearly the alien lends The Untamed novelty value (I can’t deny how much I enjoyed telling people that I was going to see a film about a Mexican sex alien), but more crucially it’s the glue that holds this complex drama together. “What’s there in the cabin is the most primitive side of ourselves,” explains the alien’s human adoptive mother. “It’s never going to disappear – it’s only going to perfect itself.” This can’t help but chime with Ángel’s need to keep his true self hidden behind a violent façade of machismo, along with his wife Alejandra’s nagging sense of sexual unfulfillment.
Escalante is wonderfully adept at the more genre-based aspects of the movie. The lingering sense of dread is on par with the most masterful of horror flicks – striking cinematography and a sparse score mean the creature’s presence haunts the Mexican countryside. The mounting unease interacts with a heady undercurrent of eroticism, and the scenes with the alien can be both horrifying and sexually thrilling. Add to the mix Escalante’s eye for disturbing realist detail – workmen merrily chanting “life is worth nothing” before breaking into a pub brawl; young children already internalising homophobic attitudes – and you have an intriguing and eclectic genre-mashup.
The key to both suspense and eroticism is delayed satisfaction, yet postponing the film’s payoff is a risky business. One of The Untamed’s flaws is that only the third act really delivers on both hard-hitting social commentary and queasily-erotic body horror. You sometimes get the sense Escalante is trying to do too much: the movie’s heavy on atmosphere, but also has a busy plot to get through in its short 1hr38min runtime; it aims to be understated while also delivering searing emotional content.
Nevertheless, The Untamed is consistently involving and morally ambiguous – much, much more than arthouse tentacle porn.