The audience is a voyeur, floating through a peculiar, intimate nightmare. A tense soundscape suffocates a dimly-lit room, where traces of blood on floorboards lead to a naked young woman, Veronica (Simon Bucio), resting against a wooden beam in a cabin. Amat Escalante’s The Untamed opens with one of its most shocking violent and divisive sequences, playing as a tongue-in-cheek warning shot: expect a work of violence, eroticism, and the surreal. By the time we leave the cabin, Escalante has already revealed the creature at the core of his film: a squid-like entity (voiced by Norwegian musician Jenny Hval) with the capability to deliver both life’s ultimate pleasure and it’s very rupture.1
Kicking off the film with a literal climax featuring tentacle penetration puts Escalante in a difficult position to frame The Untamed as a work of suspense. In the scenes that follow, though, the director makes it clear that this is no creature feature. Instead, it’s a multi-faceted drama, punctuated by cursory scenes of tentacled ecstasy. In shedding this initial tension, Escalante is able to easily weave scenes of entrancing eroticism into a work built on stark, political images in the social realist tradition.
When Veronica heads to a city to seek treatment for her wound, she meets a young doctor named Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). The two develop a friendship after a fairly suggestive back-and-forth. From here, Escalante begins a mundane process of introducing and defining the characters at the core his film, and how they relate to one another. Fabian’s sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is married to a loud, bigoted, and increasingly violent man named Angel (Jesús Meza). In public, he’s defined by his prejudice. He declares he wouldn’t speak to Fabian, a gay man, if he wasn’t the brother of his wife. Escalante swiftly reveals the two are in a clandestine affair, depicting the stark contradictions that underpin Angel’s public posturing. When Fabian is found dead, Angel is imprisoned for the murder. Veronica goes on to develops a friendship with Alejandra, peppered with echoes of the same intimacy she shared with Fabian.
The nuanced interpersonal relationships (familial, romantic, structural) that Escalante develops act as microcosms of more immediate, broader socio-political issues in Mexico. The Untamed found its inspiration in public outrage in the wake of a gay doctor’s brutal murder, Escalante was especially incensed by the disingenuous framing of the incident by the press. As such, the work is littered with reminders that the brutality on screen is linked directly to violence in Mexico today.
The conservatism that Escalante assails in the film is multi-layered, and Fabian is increasingly traumatised by his clandestine affair with Angel. The widespread nature of homophobia within Mexico — where, between 2002 and 2007, the country had the second-highest reported rate of homophobic murders — create conditions that provoke Angel’s growing vehemence. Angel oscillates between anger and affection towards Fabian, although the latter emotion eventually fades out of the picture. This same tension bleeds into Angel’s interactions with Alejandra, mirroring the trends of gendered violence in the country.2 Escalante supersedes initial terror of the monster, to a point. He underpins the interactions on screen with violence and unease, where, eventually, the gesture of escape represented by the tentacle-laden beast — even when coupled with certain death — embodies something more desirable than the slow-burning tension and hate that Angel comes to represent.
The director situates his characters against a growing sense of desire for abject pleasure, or, more cynically, an absolute break from their day-to-day. In an interview with Film Comment, Escalante describes the eroticism of the film as “the act of sex and the desire for sex… always reaches a point, where it’s like a drug. You reach it, you have it, and then, somehow, it’s unfinished. The desire comes again, and you search for it again, and then it’s this cycle.” At times it feels as if Escalante has refigured Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses; instilling it with elements of body horror, and reworking it under the guise of science-fiction. In all of this, the work remains thematically intact, albeit underpinned by a darker sense of social realism: where transcendence is substituted with escape.
Despite their separate fates, Fabian and Alejandra are equal victims in the fragmented and patriarchal society that Angel embodies. Escalante’s early directorial moves, from the moment each character is introduced, work towards setting the stage for a searing denouement. Flashes of violence sit at junctures throughout the work, but each of these moments has lasting ramifications, sustained by a stinging permanence that reverberates until the film’s conclusion. The manner in which society perpetuates cycles of violence, whatever the form, has emerged as a central concern throughout Escalante’s work. The same issues were embedded in Heli (2013), with cruelty wielded in much the same way: castigating an unequal system by putting it on display.
The Untamed relies on a sense of familiarity — of genre, narrative, tension and development — as it positions its audience to anticipate conclusions, before leading them elsewhere; forcing them to reject whatever surmise they might’ve reached. Escalante employs a degree of cinematic banality, propping up expectations of cliché, before pulling away the veneer. This approach means the director is often guilty of reproducing what it intends to denounce — namely, violence. In doing so, Escalante’s divisive power remains intact. Although there’s an inherent degree of violence and shock in The Untamed, Escalante uses these abrasive tools to infuse his work with damning socio-political critique.