Jordan Monaghan as Moira
Directed by Nicholas Ashe Bateman
The Wanting Mare Review
The Wanting Mare opens with a stunning aerial view of a city, ostensibly floating through a dark ocean, its lights shimmering through thick fog. Later, we see a woman bathed in golden light holding a child in a shot that looks like it was pulled from one of Rembrandt’s paintings; and later, various characters are framed against epic backdrops filled with the type of lens flare work that would make JJ Abrams squeal.
All this to say that, visually speaking, The Wanting Mare, which debuted this weekend at the Chattanooga Film Festival, is truly remarkable. And when you consider the creativity and effort that went into crafting these effects, one must tip their hat at the unrelenting perseverance of the film’s crew.
According to the press kit, it took five years and over $20,000 (collected from a GoFundMe campaign) for director Nicholas Ashe Bateman to transfer his vision, comprised of over 500 special FX shots, to the screen. The end results are nothing short of astonishing; and the visuals, created through green screen trickery, are convincing enough to propel the film’s various characters into a fully realized world filled with dreamy landscapes, rocky ocean shores, and stunning vistas.
Too bad the plot makes no sense.
This is the type of film cinephiles will adore, what with its vague dialogue, overt symbolism and dreary tone. Countless hours will be spent deciphering its meaning. Cool. Except, the journey itself is so tedious, and the film’s characters so downtrodden, I can’t imagine wanting to spend more time watching these depressed people struggle to find happiness in such a violent, pointless world.
To each their own.
The plot involves the city of Whithren, which, a title card informs us, is located on the world of Anmaere and entrenched in a constant state of heat. The sweaty, miserable denizens dream of Levithen, a perpetual haven adorned in snow. Every year, horses from Whithren are captured and transported to Levithen along with a few lucky folk fortunate enough to obtain a ticket. Naturally, to get these tickets, the Whithrens perform all sorts of horrific acts that typically result in senseless death and destruction.
Imagine Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except without the fun.
Into this deranged landscape falls Moira (Jordan Monaghan), a young woman attempting to understand a recurring dream involving whispers of magic in a previous time and place. She believes Levithen contains the answers to all of her questions and enlists Lawrence (Bateman), a man who spends his days hunting for tickets, to get her across the sea. Except, this intriguing plot gives way to a series of feverish Terrence Malick-ish episodes packed with abstract images and time jumps designed to show future generations enduring the same pointless struggles.
Perhaps that’s the point.
Not all of it is doom and gloom. A few characters step forward and supply doses of compassion to their fellow man, though such acts of kindness are offset by haunting images of horses munching on rotting corpses and various scenes of human suffering — and sweating.
“For her, I was good,” one man tells another, even while he bleeds to death from a gunshot.
From an acting standpoint, the entire cast, consisting of Monaghan, Bateman, Yasamin Keshtkar, Edmond Cofie, and Josh Clark, deliver the goods. You believe in what they’re saying and doing, even if you have no idea what they are saying or doing.
Part of the problem lies in Bateman’s screenplay, which posits numerous questions it never bothers to answer and is perhaps a little too vague for its own good — “Can you see it now? The past.” The frequent time jumps don’t help, either; as characters pop up and vanish before any kind of connection can be made.
“I have a dream … my mom had it,” one character explains. “Her mom had it. It’s a picture of the world as it was. And it’s terrible.” I’m all for a mystifying, challenging cinematic journey, but there’s a fine line between vaguely abstract and infuriating.
I was reminded of Alex Garland’s terrific (and batshit crazy) Annihilation, which supplied scattered clues for the audience to interpret and piece together. Yet, where I found joy in deciphering the peculiar visuals of Garland’s world and sat on the edge of my seat as each new mystery presented itself, The Wanting Mare left me, well, wanting, during a majority of its runtime. For all its visual splendor, solid acting, and meticulous world building, I never cared about the characters or their plight.
Now, it’s more than likely I missed the whole damned point of the flick — something about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, or the burden of children on parents — and need a little more time to digest what I saw; and, if that’s the case, apologies in advance. Perhaps I witnessed the greatest film ever made and am simply too thick-headed to understand its meaning in one viewing. Or maybe I was distracted by all the pretty images.
Either way, despite my obvious criticisms, I heartedly recommend The Wanting Mare to film enthusiasts looking for a decidedly unique film experience. One caveat: try to see this in a theater where you can truly immerse yourself in its breathtaking visuals free from distractions.
And here’s to hoping you get more out it than I did.