The Untamed Is a Sexy Sci-Fi Thriller You Need to See to Believe
Director Amat Escalante pushes the limits of science fiction cinema in this overlooked 2016 genre-bender.
It came from outer space… on a mysterious meteorite that landed in a rural town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.
With its moist, phallic tentacles, tongue-like in color and texture, an extraterrestrial entity caresses the naked body of Verónica (Simone Bucio), a young local woman with an entrancing visage, in the aftermath of sexual ecstasy. This disconcerting image drags us into The Untamed (La región salvaje), director Amat Escalante’s brilliantly unsettling 2016 genre-bender: part social realist drama and part sci-fi thriller. These two seemingly opposing modes congeal here in seamless fashion, with the unflinching realism that characterizes Escalante’s work taking on an uncanny aura.
“It can only give pleasure,” Verónica later says of the creature that has become her fickle, interstellar lover. Early on, however, an otherworldly tracking shot through a foggy landscape reveals that’s not the case. Verónica bleeds from a wound inflicted during their sensual rendezvous. Whatever this being is, it can certainly hurt those who surrender to its passion. Hidden inside an unassuming cabin, the alluring guest is under the care of an elderly couple, trained scientists who believe it’s no longer safe for Verónica to visit the creature. The girl is instead tasked with finding new sexual partners to satisfy its supernatural libido.
Unbridled with the moral qualms that prevent humans from acting on their most elemental desires, the monstrous paramour acts on the purest of instincts. Without any guilt or judgment, it turns carnal urges into a heavenly act of sensory delight that washes away the burdens of the world from anyone its fleshy limbs stimulate. Its presence epitomizes what’s most primitive within every living thing, and animals react to its erotic radiance with an even stronger impetus. Nature is presented as fluctuating between idyllic and unnerving through cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s shots of a celestial open sky that contrasts with still frames of the enigmatic forest that appears to beckon us to enter it.
Elsewhere in town, Ángel (Jesús Meza), a hypermasculine married father of two, is having an affair with his brother-in-law Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), a nurse. Unsuspecting of the unforgivable betrayal, Ángel’s wife, Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), submits to her spouse’s chauvinist behaviors. To hide his own repressed sexuality and self-hatred, Ángel constantly defaults to unabashedly homophobic remarks. He can only satiate his lust in the utmost secrecy, which reaffirms the illicit connotation that he associates with homosexual acts.
Escalante extends his examination of our most ingrained impulses to the predilection we have for eating animal meat. The camera focuses just a little too long on a pile of pork at a local market and later on a plate of cooked beef. If we consider our consumption of animals’ bodies intellectually, some of us may come to find it objectionable. And yet it’s a widely accepted practice while sexual intercourse remains taboo in most societies. The imagery also connects with Ángel’s repulsion for meat after a childhood trauma involving his father’s affinity for hunting deer — an incident in turn entangled with his understanding of masculinity and the attitudes he must perform in order to be accepted by other men.
The violent destinies of these characters converge when Verónica befriends Fabian and invites him to experience the bodily elation of sleeping with the unnamed life form. The repercussions of this encounter will rattle them all. Guiding a group of mostly first-time actors, the filmmaker obtains a bevy of naturalistic performances that preserve their grounded quality even as they interact with the story’s unearthly undercurrents.
Meza’s Ángel in particular, with his brittle pride and the inner turmoil that unravels as he desperately seeks to appease his parents, demands a nuanced hostility laced with desperation. One can be moved to despise and pity him all within the same scene. Ángel embodies the flip side of what the creature offers. In his effort to conceal his true self, he has destroyed the lives of others. It only makes sense that Alejandra, the main victim of his decisions, finds the strength to reclaim her life in the extraterrestrial’s embrace.
When Escalante finally reveals the alien form in full as a squid-like mass, we witness Alejandra, now more resolute about standing up to Ángel, engaging in interplanetary intercourse for a bizarrely fascinating instance of explicit body horror. Crafted by the Danish VFX effects team led by Peter Hjorth, who had previously worked on Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Melancholia, among many other European titles, the mesmerizingly grotesque figure looks believable in its organic tangibleness.
Introducing this genre element into his subdued milieu allows Escalante to permeate every empty alleyway and pastoral vista with the tension of impending danger that gets under our skin. One of the most uniquely rendered Mexican films of the last decade, The Untamed makes us wonder what it’d feel like to be wrapped in the cosmic warmth of the alien’s squiggly arms, where all the answers to the questions of existence and the universe reside.