At a crater in the lush, mossy-green Mexican countryside in Amat Escalante’s fourth feature, The Untamed, every native species of animal gathers to fuck, like a pornographic Noah’s Ark. This scene of otherworldly magical realism is not what audiences have come to expect from the director, whose best-known film, Heli, revels in relentless and casual violence centered on Mexican drug traffickers. In The Untamed, which tells the tale of a group of troubled people who find solace by engaging in all-consuming intercourse with an irresistible, many-tentacled sex alien — which traveled to Earth on the meteor that made the crater — a fantastical premise collides with Escalante’s solemn realism, making for a quiet, unforgettable mashup, inspired by director Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession.
Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) sleepwalks through her life, enduring dutiful married sex with her brutish husband, Angel (Jesus Meza), and making candy in her controlling mother-in-law’s factory like she’s Lucy and Ethel on Ambien. Meanwhile, in the side room of a rustic cabin — inhabited by an elderly married couple — young Veronica (Simone Bucio) readily submits herself to that creature, allowing its snaking limbs to penetrate her body. She’s in ecstasy, nearly catatonic, when the nameless woman of the couple knocks on the door and tells Veronica to wrap up her session with the sex monster before she gets hurt. These disparate scenes are at once jarring but compelling; even if the narrative seemed disjointed, I was determined to stay with it. How would Veronica get hurt? What is this creature? Why does this seemingly normal, nameless couple require a steady stream of sexual suitors for the being coiled around the rafters in their den? Escalante eventually answers these questions, but the director subverts expectations, and the drama of human connection becomes just as absorbing as the alien element.
Escalante dedicated this film to Zulawski, and its sex monster bears a similar physical resemblance to the beast in Possession, but its effect on humans is different. Those enraptured by Possession’s monster are manic, slicing at their own bodies with blades, obliterating the self with violence. Untamed’s monster wipes the mind clean of pain and fear. The humans achieve a Zen state — unless they become addicted to the pleasure and passively allow the monster to destroy them.
Veronica has already arrived at that dangerous tipping point, which is why she must recruit others to offer up to the insatiable creature. Through a serendipitous event, Veronica meets Alejandra’s gay brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who introduces her to Alejandra. Both siblings are in need of emotional cleansing and are therefore perfect candidates for the creature — Fabian is uneasy because he’s been secretly fucking Angel, and Alejandra has suppressed any and all primal instinct to care for her two children and her boorish, cheating husband. But after one visit with the creature, both brother and sister have enough courage to say buh-bye to Angel.
Through Angel, the Mexican director baldly attacks sexist and homophobic machismo in his culture, but he’s sympathetic to the character as well. Angel is self-hating, often assailing Fabian’s softness through vicious texts — “I wanna see you, I wanna fuck,” followed by “I’ll break your face, faggot.” Escalante and co-writer Gibran Portela construct the story so that Angel is given multiple chances to come clean and free himself of his guilt and his shame; Alejandra asks him again and again if he would like to talk, but he doubles down on his lies each time. His fate is of his own making.
It’s not just Angel who can’t face reality. Every human who indulges his or her urges with the monster is granted only a glimpse of serenity that they’re unable to retain in their daily lives. Escalante doesn’t deliver a particularly original message here — there is no escape from the hard work of self-development, and what can temporarily cure you can also kill you. But the director’s strength is in crafting fully drawn, sympathetic characters you root for — a big accomplishment when they have to compete for audience attention with a sex monster.