Spanish-language thriller The Wasteland unleashes a beast whose invisibility makes it all the more frightening.
Both unnerving psychological thriller and stripped back creature feature, The Wasteland considers the nature of fear, childhood scars, and the importance of accepting how terrifyingly little control we have over our own life. But more importantly, there’s a badass kid-on-monster fight scene.
Equal part familial psychodrama and slow burn creature-feature, The Wasteland is one of the more ambitious Netflix originals of the last few years.
This unusual thriller exiles audiences in the 19th Century Spanish wilderness and unlikely home of young Diego (Asier Flores) and devoted parents Salvator (Roberto Álamo) and Lucía (Inma Cuesta), whose cozy existence is threatened by a monster all the more dangerous for its incorporeality.
Cementing the film’s unnerving tone early on, the film begins with an anonymous figure staggering onscreen before succumbing to a blood-soaking death. This scene provides impetus for Salvator to farewell Diego and Lucia and search for the dead man’s family- but not before he unsettles his young son by way of frightening foreshadowing.
Salvator shares the myth of “the beast” or El Paramo as per the film’s working title. The monster is described as a hollow-faced, towering, sightless yet deadly predator; in other words, super comforting bedtime story material.
The audience soon discovers the beast is real. But are we to assume Salvator knew this too? Or was the story just a story from his perspective? Either conclusion suggests worryingly poor parenting, with Salvator either choosing to leave Diego and Lucia despite knowing a supernatural killing-machine was on the loose or he has a seriously sadistic idea of age-appropriate entertainment. (Has this man never heard of Dr Seuss?)
But of course, such nit-picking is irrelevant in The Wasteland’s intentionally dream-like world. What’s important is Diego has been taught to fear the beast. But it’s this very fear that must be overcome to defeat the demon. For “the more you fear the beast,” legend warns, “the more it sucks you in.”
Far more than the sum of its parts. The Wasteland creates an expansive narrative using just two characters, one lonely hut, and the mere suggestion of a monster. Outstanding performances by both Cuesta and Flores flesh out the central mother-son relationship, with Flores in particular pitch perfect as Diego.
Believable and likeable child protagonists are notoriously rare, so the decision to entrust a ten-year-old with the bulk of The Wasteland’s emotional weight was a significant risk. But while most child actors struggle to convey adult themes without seeming insufferably precocious, Flores somehow created one of year’s most sympathetic and relatable characters- adult or child. Not bad for a fourth grader.
The actor is of course joined by unofficial co-star, the beast himself. Though he’s not given much to work with by way of dialogue or screen time, the creature nonetheless exudes slow-burning malevolence with no more than a certain rustling in the restless tallgrass.
Clearly a believer of Hollywood’s “Don’t show the monster” rule, the filmmaker’s don’t deviate from a strict “less is more” approach until one of the very last scenes. (Viewers are eventually allowed a peek at the monster, though an extremely fleeting one.)
And it’s the absolute right choice. By making the monster faceless an air of omniscience is suggested.
Additionally, by inviting audiences to fill in the blanks and project their own worst fears onto the beast the films cleverly brings its key themes -the destructive power of unacknowledged fear, and the monumental courage it takes to face our inner demons- to our attention.
It’s not the only example of subtext. In fact, The Wasteland’s contextless location, fantastical plot elements, and ambiguous ending all leave it wide open for interpretation. It’s therefore unsurprising that every review or recap has a slightly different take on the film’s meaning. Veiled commentary on the demise of the nuclear family, extended biblical allusion, or metaphor for the pandemic are just some of the many theories.
So, what do I think The Wasteland is? Symbolism aside, it is a satisfyingly suspenseful old-fashioned supernatural horror with an impressively cinematic feel- at least for a Netflix original. But one thing this movie is not? Particularly, well, scary.
“We aren’t trying to make a horror film just for horror fans,” David Casademunt told Variety magazine last year.
“We want to make a film that can touch the soul of people that normally might not go to see horror films- a horror film with a lot of emotion that could be loved by all audiences.”
With this surprisingly narrow-minded take on the genre and its fans, Casademunt might have inadvertently hit upon The Wasteland’s biggest weakness; the choice to play it safe rather than break new ground and refusal to acknowledge just how powerful horror movies can be.
After all, who says emotion and terror (feels n’ fears) are mutually exclusive? Or that horror fans only enjoy psychologically-shallow gore-fests?
Whoever it was forgot to tell Ari Aster, whose 2018 “horror film for horror fans” Hereditary invented the concept of“emotional terrorism.”
Unafraid of leaning into horror movie tropes, the film twists universal human experiences including grief, trauma, and even love, into the stuff of nightmares. And lastly, Hereditary does in fact touch viewers’ souls. That’s the most horrifying part.
The Wasteland is sure no Hereditary. But it’s not The Happening either. A well-crafted, enjoyable little gem that is consistently good without ever being great, this film will entertain almost everyone.
But hardcore horror-fiends left unsatisfied by Casademunt’s horror-lite offering can only hope the director changes his mind and makes a “horror film for horror fans” next time.
Read More: The Wasteland Ending Explained
Verdict - 8/10