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I’m of the opinion that it’s generally impossible, as a lover of cinema with or without a critical agenda, to not be sucked into a film that opens with a dark screen and a simple, slightly gravely delivered voiceover along the lines of, “Do you want to hear a story?”
Thusly opens Wildling, German director Fritz Böhm’s feature debut, and thusly are you — or at least, thusly was I — very willfully drawn all the way into the film’s opening sequence. While most any kind of narrative, cinematic or otherwise, can very easily veer away from the inherent intrigue of such a mise-en-abyme introduction to become, say, generic or trite, this captivating film very surely does not. The sense of allure created by that initial lure doesn’t wane for a moment.
Indeed, on all matters of lure and allure, Wildling doubles down. The story-within-a-story construction attains complexity not only via the plethora of tales told or explanations provided within the narrative, which include everything from primal sylvan myths of sorts to specialized medical diagnoses, but also by way of the mélange of film types this lone film seems to contain. One could call it a genre mashup, but to do so might be a bit lazy; the various genres of which it consists seem embedded within or rotating around one another, rather than fluidly merged or blended together.
Overall, however, Böhm’s film is cloaked in mystery, dark and dank, occasionally bloody, sometimes shocking, and fantastically folkloric as protagonist Anna’s possibly explicable, possibly supernatural, possibly uncontrollably monstrous origins and existence are fleshed out. We meet her when she is a young girl being told stories by an otherwise unnamed Daddy, who seems to be holding her captive in a rundown, barred-window room. She is “the last one left” of her “kind,” we learn, and she must be protected from the ravages of the horrific “wildling” out there in the woods.
“Anna must stay inside,” so we see her draw, read, have birthdays, care for a pet, and bide her time with an ominously ticking clock. We also see her receive some kind of medication via needle-shots in the stomach. And then we realize that she is receiving lots of needle-shots in the stomach. Her situation seems to go from grim to grimmer to far grimmer yet. And this is all in the first fifteen minutes.
But then all at once, Daddy is apparently gone. And seemingly out of nowhere enters officer Cooper, played with charm and serenity by Liv Tyler, who takes Anna in while investigating the circumstances of her captivity which lasted, so it seems, 16 years. Before long we come to realize that, with Daddy out of the picture, there might be no one who knows just what Anna is or ‘has,’ unless perhaps there’s someone else — or something else — out there to tell the tale. We might even begin to wonder if Daddy was, in fact, keeping Anna safe after all. We certainly begin to wonder if there’s anything along the lines of safety for her anywhere, and if a certain “better place” might be beyond her reach.
Wildling is not all fairy tale and terror, however. It is also touching, at times, and funny, at times, and even a bit romantic — as well as cleverly, atmospherically vague in terms of this-world markers such as time and place. It brings to mind a handful of more or less recent films like Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On, and a number of titles by Guillermo del Toro. It is also somewhere in the sphere of certain ‘good ones’ by M. Night Shyamalan.
If some of those references sound like your kind of thing, then Wildling is certainly your kind of thing. But even if they don’t, it might be anyway, for this film is also, in many ways — and not unlike the ‘thing’ of its title — its own kind of thing. You might find yourself just as pleased as I am to have been sucked into its story of stories.
Wildling (2018), directed by Fritz Böhm, is distributed by Maven Pictures. It will be released by IFC Midnight on VOD and Digital HD, and in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, on April 13th.