Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – strange pleasures from out of this world

An alien dispenses illicit thrills in this elegant oddity from one of Mexico's finest young writer-directors

The opening shot of The Untamed is a dark lump of rock, hovering in outer space, its edges glistening in starlight. The image is pure science fiction, but as a taster for what follows this is more a piece of elegant misdirection than helpful cue. Sure, there’s a cosmic vibe to this Mexican oddity, but the rest of writer-director Amat Escalante’s drama remains solidly earthbound.

The setting is small-town rural Mexico, the focus the frustrations of an unhappily married young couple. What’s offered is mostly a slab of dowdy realism, rippled with an element sexual intrigue, set in an ordinary working-class community. Except to describe the film in these terms would also be misleading – because it skips mention of the slimy, many-tentacled genderless monster kept in a cabin in the woods, to which the principal human characters return repeatedly to be sexually pleasured.

If this sounds like an improbable mishmash, then the most immediately striking thing about The Untamed is the sober, high-minded conviction with which Escalante and his team orchestrate all these disparate elements. Ale (Ruth Ramos) is a mother of two drifting apart from her husband Angel (Jesús Meza), a construction worker given to surly mood swings, bouts of hard drinking and casual homophobia. Angel is also having a passionate affair with Ale’s brother Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), a medic at the local hospital – a relationship that the two men are keen to keep secret. Into this stew of sexual frustration, macho repression and romantic disaffection walks Verónica (Simone Bucio).

Laid out on a grubby mattress in a darkened room, she’s brought to heights of erotic ecstasy by this alien thingamajig

This young woman, who drifts through events with a sense of languid, sleepy self-possession, introduces us to the monster in the remote cabin. A few references indicate this creature arrived here via a crashing meteorite – presumably the rock in space in the opening shot, which does at least suggest some kind of internal logic to the film’s seemingly free-association stream of imagery. But Verónica is less concerned with this creature’s origins than its more immediate effects: laid out on a grubby mattress in a darkened room, she’s brought to heights of erotic ecstasy by this alien thingamajig, a thrill to which she obsessively returns.

Except as well as bringing its human partners to unknown orgasmic heights the creature will also turn on them, and Verónica is forced to terminate her sessions in the cabin when the monster injures her. In her place she supplies more fresh meat in the form of Fabián – who is soon gravely injured by the alien, an attack that is blamed on Angel after Ale chances on evidence of their affair. With Angel in prison and custody of her kids threatened by her disapproving mother-in-law, Ale herself is drawn to the monster to experience the wild sensations promised there.

The Untamed is a hard film to get a fix on, but underpinning its atmosphere of uncanny dread and Gothic fantasy is an exploration of the transformative power of sex, and the way so many erotic encounters, especially those with an illicit frisson, dance a thin line between pleasure and pain. It doesn’t, I feel, entirely add up to a coherent or satisfactory whole. Escalante crafts some arrestingly icky imagery – notably a riot of fornicating animals in the base of a sunken meteor crater – but the film’s provocations are intellectual rather than visceral: some trashy horror shock effects wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Still, this elegant, elliptical mood piece is an impressively original work, compelling proof that Escalante is one of Mexico’s finest young directors.