It probably won’t take much more than 5 minutes to decide if “The Untamed” is for you. Indeed, this new film from prominent Mexican director Amat Escalante presents its audacious premise right from the start. Incorporating themes of sexual liberation into an alien movie, it leaves it up to the audience to determine whether they are witnessing a disturbing horror or intriguing sci-fi/drama.
The perversions of “The Untamed” center around a family living in a provincial Mexican town. Namely, they include working housewife/mother Alejandra, her husband Angel (a road worker) and her brother Fabian (a nurse). Dutifully going about their daily routine, their lives are largely consumed by their work and family obligations. Each person craves more from life however, hoping to find greater fulfillment outside of their traditional roles. One day, an opportunity to satisfy this desire arrives through a mysterious woman named Verónica. Befriending Fabian and later Alejandra, she lures them to a secret cabin in the woods, where they will experience a form of enlightenment from an otherworldly source. However, there is a price to pay for the irresistible pleasures they will encounter. But it may be too late for them to escape a potentially fatal threat.
The exact nature of what lurks in the woods is revealed at the very beginning of the narrative. In the film’s most striking sequence, we are introduced to Verónica in the throes of sexual passion, being stimulated by a mysterious, tentacled creature. Subsequently, we also meet an unidentified couple who oversee this bizarre experiment, as they order her to quickly leave and return to normal civilization. This latest experience is different however. As she stumbles out of the woods, she is visibly injured as a bright splash of red blood pierces through the gloomy fog.
The audacity of the opening makes quite the impression, to the extent that this highly sexual drama feels like it climaxes too early (pun intended). There’s no shortage of sex and violence to come, giving new meaning to “la petite mort” (the little death), the French term for orgasms. But at some point, the overarching narrative starts to feel shallow and gratuitous.
Still, it’s easy to understand why Escalante was awarded the Best Director prize at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. “The Untamed” is nothing if not daring, reflecting a distinctive auteur vision. But unlike the similarly themed alien seduction of another Venice premiere “Under the Skin”, the script for “The Untamed” is uninterested in developing the characters or understanding the psychology behind their actions. When Verónica is questioned about the appeal of her strange “relationship”, she simply states in her typically dour fashion “I just keep going back and can’t stop.”
Ultimately, your willingness to accept this ambiguity will determine your ability to enjoy this perplexing film. “The Untamed” is like a nightmare you’re trying to recall a week after the fact. The details are murky, but you know it was absolutely deranged.
“The Untamed” opens in select theaters July 21.