#TIFF16 Review: Toxic Masculinity and Tentacles in The Untamed

The Untamed (La región salvaje)

The Untamed (La región salvaje) posterThe Untamed (La región salvaje) 

Director: Amat Escalante
Starring: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza, Edén Villavicencio, Kenny Johnston

This review will contain spoilers and discussion of homophobia, rape and rape culture.

Alejandra and Angel are in a loveless marriage. He’s abusive and is fucking her brother Fabian on the side. She’s bored, scared, and hasn’t had an orgasm in what seems like years.

Fabian, meanwhile, can’t stop letting Angel come over, even though their relationship would hurt his sister if she knew about it, and it isn’t exactly good for Fabian either.

Veronica too is in a long term relationship with someone who’s good in bed, but doesn’t care about her–and who’s definitely sleeping around.

Then there’s the tentacle monster. We’ll call it “T.” T is sleeping with a lot of people, all of the main cast by the end of the film and countless unnamed others. Possibly also some animals. That part is unclear. But although some of T’s partners are sexually satisfied–Veronica, for one–none of these relationships are quite voluntary, and all of them are predatory and destructive.

It’s undeniably well made, with dozens of almost perfect shots that turn the pastoral into something dreadful. Conversations that speak of years of history, though, with few years. Also, a tentacle monster.

The Untamed is a strange film. Beautifully shot, edited and composed. Directed with a firm hand and clear vision. Full of layered performances and sharp social commentary. It’s undeniably well made, with dozens of almost perfect shots that turn the pastoral into something dreadful. Conversations that speak of years of history, though, with few years. Also, a tentacle monster.

Here’s the deal: The monster is an alien–as we learn in an all too brief explanation from a man who is studying it–who fell to earth from an asteroid we glimpse in the film’s opening shot. How this man discovered the creature is unclear, as is everything else about it, including its motivations, needs, and even its level of intelligence–is it sentient? Despairing? On what does it feed? We never get the answers to these questions, because the alien is silent, menacingly erotic, and unheard.

The man, some kind of scientist–I’m guessing zoologist, based on his interest in local, terrestrial fauna–finds the alien after observing animals flock to its impact crater. They aren’t attracted to it to eat or even to be eaten, but rather to mate, two-by-two with no concern for the presence of other species, whether predator or prey. As though the impact crater is an oasis where the life necessity that requires peace isn’t water, but fucking.

Our zoologist has set up the alien in a room of his house, a cabin in the–oh hey, untamed–woods. Along with his wife and their dog, he studies the alien and finds it people to fuck. Test subjects, not people, bodies to be consumed for “science” and then dumped. Can this be science, though? This clandestine “study” in totally uncontrolled circumstances that he calls “trial and error” and doggedly continues with no matter the experimental outcomes or costs to his subjects? What is the point of all of it? That is left unclear, but I think we can suss out some of what is going on.

The film opens with Veronica approaching orgasm. Masturbating you think, until the camera pulls back, revealing a tentacle rubbing against her groin. From there we quickly meet the rest of our cast of lonely hearts. Veronica meets Fabian at the hospital where he works, and through them, Ale and Angel. In a different movie this might be the point at which everything goes bad. Here, things simply go from bad to worse; from the slow death of toxic masculinity to the quick death of violent obsession and abuse; to people made disposable in the name of science, pleasure, comfort, freedom, and a whole host of grasped for, but never arrived at ideas, ideals and desires. It’s a quick slide from there, but director Amat Escalante doesn’t rush through the plot to get to his big ideas. The pace is slow, but relentless, with things spiraling worse, worse, every act of comfort and compassion paid for with pain.

Sex is bad–maybe that’s the message? Or that sex makes animals, fools, and monsters of us all?

Sex is bad–maybe that’s the message? Or that sex makes animals, fools, and monsters of us all? But why the scientist, in that case? I think it’s more than that. No one is just here for those happy hentai good times; rather, everyone is desperate in some way–lying, cheating, fleeing, hurting. Except this scientist, called cold by his wife, portrayed cold, clearly, by the film, fixated on some bizarre agenda that keeps this whole circus going. He says that the alien is the primal part of us, that it will never go away, only perfect itself. What exactly does he mean by that?

So let’s talk relationships. They are all sexual to some degree, but are they primal? Angel hangs on to Ale and Fabian as though between the two of them, they can shield him from the worst parts of himself. Its not his anger or violence that Angel is worried about, though, it’s his sexuality. He starts fights with other straight men. Verbally abuses Fabian. Emotionally and physically abuses Ale. This isn’t the problem. Internalized homophobia, his inability to accept his attraction to Fabian, is what fuels both of his relationships. Ale and Fabian, who relocated from Tijuana to be with Angel, are siloed–trapped in abusive relationships with the same man but unable to seek comfort from each other despite the fact that they’re loving siblings.

Veronica is fixated on T. Ostensibly because the alien gives pleasure that is quite literally out of this world. But considering its affects on the local wildlife, should we really believe that she’s just out for that perfect O? Veronica is a broken woman. She seems to have been groomed for the relationship in some fashion, introduced to T by our favourite scientist, who has “known her since she was young.” Unclear is just how long she’s been visiting the alien or what drew her to this in the first place. Long enough that she’s “become too confident.” Long enough that the whole thing has become entirely normalized. That she’s willing to do anything to keep the relationship going in some fashion–even after it rejects and subsequently hurts her. This is, plainly, an unhealthy relationship. The alien can’t truly be said to be consenting. She displays symptoms of both obsession and abuse.

Is this really about the lengths we’ll go to for a good fuck? The persistence of our primal sides? Or is something more going on? Diana Sanchez, who programmed the film for TIFF, writes that The Untamed explores “the reptile brain, our primal desires, and our unfortunate predilection for self destruction. It also offers a liberating vision of female autonomy. Sensual, erotic, and uncompromisingly weird, The Untamed will be difficult to forget.”

What does she mean by female autonomy? Without spoiling too much, the ability of women to exist personally, sexually, and socially without men. Getting away from men like Angel is great, but in The Untamed no one is free or healthy, though there’s a suggestion of it in its ambiguous ending, the possibility of a happy ending of a sort–or something just as bad as what comes before.

Ultimately, The Untamed is not unsympathetic to any of its core cast, and it invites us to wonder who they might have been without the strictures of toxic masculinity and sexism. Only the doctor and his alien subject remain opaque to us–the alien because it cannot speak, and the doctor because he chooses to offer no explanation.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.