The new indie release Wildling deliberately blurs the lines between the Hollywood creature feature and the coming-of-age tale with some mythic, fairy tale elements that are both immediately familiar and yet somehow turned on their heads. A visually striking film that belies its modest budget, Wildling also demonstrates the creative rewards of flouting and flaunting genre conventions. It’s a horror movie, and a pretty damn good one, but also a dark fantasy with allegorical overtones.
English actress Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays Anna, who has grown up alone in a locked attic seeing the world only through her barred window, creepily cared for by a man she calls “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). Daddy tells her the precautions are to protect her from the Wildling, a monster that snatches and devours children. But whether that monster is outside her barred windows or inside her is not clear.
Anna has no idea how cruel and unusual her situation is, but for years this is the only life that she knows. As she begins to mature into a teenager, Daddy tells Anna that she’s sick and starts to give her mysterious injections. The movie threatens, for a thankfully brief period, to turn into a remake of Room. But inevitably the situation comes to a head, and an eventual crisis ends with Anna regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, surrounded by strangers. The only truly kind face she sees is that of police officer Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler). Ellen is moved by Ellen’s plight, and her uncertain future, which hangs in the balance while they all await DNA testing to determine whether “Daddy” was really who he said he was. She takes Anna home with her, where she already lives with her younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet).
First time feature director Fritz Böhm really hits his stride here, as he bombards Anna (and the audience) with a cinematic sensory overload that not only demonstrates how overwhelming the unfamiliar outside is to her, but functions beautifully as a metaphor for the equally overwhelming changes of puberty. Böhm and his co-writer Florian Eder (who also storyboarded and helped create the movie’s ambitious visual effects) also see the werewolf myth itself as a metaphor for adolescence. Anna’s body is rapidly changing and becoming new to her as well. She is becoming a werewolf-like creature with dangerous strength and natural tools, and we know it’s only a matter of time before the creature is unleashed.
Böhm gets good performances from his entire cast, but first and foremost it’s Bel Powley who’s most essential to the movie’s success. Powley is absolutely electrifying in the emotionally and physically challenging role of Anna. Anna doesn’t give speeches, but with eyes like Powley’s dialogue is gilding the lily. Both conveying an alien strangeness while remaining steadfastly relatable, this is a breakout, star-making performance that insistently announces the arrival of a new generation’s Streep or Redgrave. She’s that good. Tyler gives the movie its essential maternal core, while Dourif accomplishes creepy without over the top makeup.
Wildling also benefits from excellent, moody cinematography by Toby Oliver, who most recently lensed Get Out, which with the superb production design evokes a dreamlike forest of the subconscious. This is a world in which you expect monsters. Wildling is heavily informed by The Brothers Grimm, among other dark fairytale and fantasy sources. No one seriously disputes that the story of Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale for young maidens about the evil intentions of licentious men. Males are not to be trusted in Wildling, and that toxic masculinity not only robs Anna of a normal childhood, but becomes a metaphor for a father’s anxiety about his daughter’s sexual awakenings. This is the Red Riding Hood myth turned inside out: the virgin is the wolf. This would be a satisfyingly savage coming of age of story, if nothing else. But it is something else. It’s also a bloody good werewolf movie, one that stays away from the plethora full-moon-and-silver-bullet conventions that have dogged the genre since the days of Lon Chaney, Jr.
It has to be conceded that Böhm is cavalier when it comes to questions of logic, and a little more exposition about the wildlings wouldn’t have hurt the story any. He could have knocked the top off the werewolf genre here, and doesn’t quite pull that off. But the fact that it might have achieved more doesn’t diminish what it is. Wildling is a fascinating fantasy, and it’s likely to haunt you for some time after the house lights come back on.