Slow Burn Subtlety That's Not for Everyone
As this header suggests, this movie is not for everyone. It deals with heavy subject matters like depression, suicide, and child abuse, and that's enough to give anyone pause. However, if you watch this film knowing that, you're setting yourself up to slowly watch a family tear itself apart by grief, isolation, guilt, and fear. That said, the subject matter is not enough for me to give this film higher than 3 out of 5 coffins. At times, I was confused and bored when watching this movie. Nothing beats Wonder Woman 1984 in terms of boredom, but I wasn't invested in the movie the first time I watched it. It wasn't by any means a terrible movie, it just wasn't what I and a lot of other viewers were expecting. We thought we were going to see a nightmarish ghoul preying upon a family in isolation, and that's not exactly what we got.
So if you like films that make you question reality and your very sanity, then this movie might be for you. Let's discuss. Go grab some tea, snuggle into a comfy chair, and let's begin.
What to Know About The Wasteland
El Páramo or The Wasteland is a 2021 psychological horror/thriller brought to us from Spain by way of Netflix. It is set in the 19th century after consecutive wars forced its battle-weary population into isolation to get away from violence and death. This 93-minute movie feels more like 120 minutes of a mother's slow descent into depression and suicidal ideation and a son forced to watch. Dealing with heavy subject matter, this movie acts as an allegory for our experiences dealing with mental health in the pandemic and is a twisted coming-of-age tale of a 10-year-old boy who has to conquer his own fear and that of his mother.
Before you watch or even continue reading, this title includes: mental health issues, suicide, depression, child abuse, food insecurity, rotting carcasses and food, death, graphic wounds, war, isolation, knives, axes, guns, ammunition, ghoulish entities, manipulation, coercion, bullying, weird effigies, stereotypical clotheslines, and more.
A serious note to my readers, if you or anyone you know is battling depression or is thinking about hurting themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255. Your life is important and so are you.
Okay, so let's get one thing abundantly clear. The acting in this movie is phenomenal, even by the child actor. So let's discuss who these actors are and where you might have seen them.
First billed is award-winning Inma Cuesta as Lucía, the mother and wife of the story. You might have seen Cuesta in titles such as La Novia (The Bride), Águila Roja, and 3 Bodas de Más (3 More Weddings). From musical theatre to the big screen, this Valéncia native is a triple threat who can dance, sing, and act.
Next up, we have our precious Diego played by child actor Asier Flores. You might have seen this up-and-coming young actor in titles such as The Barrier (which is also on Netflix), Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory), and Paraíso. Actually only 10-years-old at the writing of this post, Flores has already achieved the stardom that so many can only dream of.
And last but not least, we have the stern yet sometimes gentle father, Salvador, played by Roberto Álamo. You might have seen this award-winning actor in Que Dios Nos Perdone (May God Forgive Us), The Skin I Live In (yes, with Antonio Banderas), and La Gran Familia Española (Family United). Álamo is an accomplished actor with over 67 acting credits under his name and a Max Award for Best Theatre Actor for his role in Urtain.
Okay, so what had happened was... a small nuclear family with a mother Lucía, father Salvador, and son Diego live in the middle of nowhere as a result of isolation after consecutive wars in 19th century Spain. Salvador is stern and wants Diego to learn how to be a man sooner rather than later and Lucía protects her son from growing up while being his only playmate aside from his pet rabbits. That notwithstanding, the family is safe, well-fed, and secure in their isolated homestead until one day when that all changes.
Salvador ventures beyond their homestead's boundaries leaving his wife and son behind. Now alone, Diego and Lucía must fend for, protect, and feed themselves. Without giving too much away, this story picks up when Lucía starts seeing a supernatural being from afar that gets closer with every passing day. And as this being (the Beast) gets closer, Lucía slips deeper and deeper into depression and fear. It is now up to young Diego to protect himself and his mother, from outside threats and within.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Now that you know the main premise and setup of the film, here's what worked, what didn't work, and what made no sense.
From my intro and other reviews online, you might think that this movie is trash. It's definitely not, but it's not the movie that it could have been. The Wasteland had a lot of potential. It got a lot of things right, but it also got a lot of things wrong. Speaking only for myself, I was impressed with the acting, cinematography, and allegorical take on mental illness and isolation.
- The acting was superb.
With such experienced and dedicated actors, it's no wonder that the cast still gets praised for their performances despite the middling reviews. It takes skill to show the slow and steady decline into a mental health crisis and make it believable. It takes skill to depict the fear and confusion of having a parent turn from protector to threat to someone who needs protection. And it takes great skill to portray anger, fear, and guilt all in a handful of lines.
- The cinematography and photography were spectacular.
I found the wide, establishing landscape shots to be breathtaking. Whether or not it was pitch black, foggy, or overcast, the videographers and photographers made the film location come to life. The foreboding feel of the lands beyond the territory's boundary was beautifully eerie. The safe and secure feel of the farm, river, and space around the house is inverted and juxtaposed when that same space becomes a source of fear and concern later in the movie. And finally, inside the home goes from welcoming and inviting to claustrophobic and dangerous by the third act of the movie.
What I learned from watching the movie twice is that the story is not only told in words and actions but also, if not more so, is told through cinematography. If you pay attention enough, you are given context clues about Lucía and Diego's mental state in the way scenes are shot (e.g., when and where they sleep, the empty spaces they maintain, the passage of time, the close-up shots, etc.). This attention to detail is worthy of high praise.
- The story, while flawed, gives us a deeper look into the intersection of mental health and isolation.
There's only but so much that I can divulge on this topic without giving more of the story away. What I can say is that for the majority of acts 2 and 3 of the movie (honestly, I just broke the movie into half-hour segments for better understanding in terms of timeline), Diego is forced to watch a startling transformation in his mother. She goes from joyful, protective, and content to depressed, fearful, and despondent. I go into a deeper dive in another post about just how terrifying that was, which you can read right after this one (wink wink, nudge nudge). But one important thing from that article to highlight is that this film is an allegory, a story within a story. To me, it seems like The Wasteland is the story of a nuclear family in Spain during the pandemic battling death, guilt, and mental health crises fueled and made worse by isolation. The writers opted to use horror as a vehicle to have a tough conversation about the pandemic and the effects death, suicide, child abuse, and depression have on ourselves and our loved ones. It is a unique take that I enjoyed exploring, but I can't say the same for everyone else.
What Didn't Work
As I mentioned before, there are a handful of things not to love about this film. Here are 3 glaring ones in my opinion.
- Telling vs. Showing
I felt like the writers and/or director left too much unsaid; they told us about the world instead of showing us. It was left up to the audience to figure out what was real and what was not, which isn't usually a problem, it just didn't work here. You can tell because IMDb's weighted average gave it a 4.6/10, which is in line with my feelings as well... though not quite. Yes, a 6/10 (my score of 3/5) is higher than average, but it's still a failing grade.
I would have liked to know more about why they were in isolation instead of reading a quick 2-line summary that is quite frankly too little context and easy to miss. And then the one glaring time they decided to show instead of tell (Salvador's sister Juana's surprise visit later on in the movie) is out of place and unnecessary. The inconsistency of world-building left me out of sorts and confused at times. I asked myself if this was a ghost story, a story like The Babadook, or even my favorite... a supernatural story. Turns out all of those guesses were wrong, at least I think so.
If you pay attention to the cinematography, and by that I mean what is unsaid and easily overlooked (those beautiful shots I mentioned and nonverbal communication), you'll understand the movie so much more. Basically, this is not the movie to have on while you're doing anything else.
- Solving a puzzle and connecting dots kept me preoccupied
Watching the film for the first time, I sat there coming up with ways to make the movie more interesting ("ooh this would be better if...") and NOT paying attention. That's never a good sign. That might not have been the director's fault, but I missed more than I should have the first time around because I was too busy trying to connect the dots and make sense of confusing world-building. With so much of the story easily overlooked (easter eggs in the cinematography), it's not a stretch to say that I was more focused on finding out the answers to my questions of why they were in isolation, why Salvador left, is this a hereditary condition, etc. (solving the puzzle that was world-building) rather than actually watching the movie and finding out along the way.
- Boring or Too Slow?
I was bored the first time I watched this movie. The second time, I had slightly more appreciation. And now, reflecting on what I watched, I like it more than I should – based solely on my own interpretations, which may or may not be true. But it shouldn't take me watching a movie twice for me to get what they were trying to say or finding easter eggs to learn about a character's motive. The reason that I had such a hard time paying attention was not that it was boring – as I said, I liked the story – it was the pacing. It took too long for the story to progress. But here's the kicker, I'm no stranger to slow burns, I like them in fact. But for this movie, time dragged on. About 37 minutes in, I checked the remaining time and I still had more than half the movie left to watch. The movie was a relatively short watch at only 93-minutes (including credits), but it felt much longer. And because it felt like a 2-hour movie, it also felt like nothing was happening up until the climax. It also didn't help that Lucía did a lot of questionable things in her depression. So here I am, frustrated with a main character and watching the clock.
What Made No Sense
A horror movie is apparently not a horror movie without bad choices that make the audience want to scream at the screen. Not only did Lucía make less than optimal (read: dumb) decisions, but so did Salvador. No major spoilers, I promise.
- Lucía's blatant disregard for available resources
One thing you learn by playing survival horror games like The Forest and the Don't Starve series is that resource management is key to surviving in a crisis or a post-apocalyptic world. Hell, that's the key to surviving anything without easy access to a supermarket or let's say a toilet paper shortage due to early pandemic greed and fear. As a 19th century woman living on a farm, there are few justifiable excuses for letting food rot or recklessly using up other essential resources. Depression is one of them, but not to the degree seen in the movie and not so early on.
- Salvador's choice to leave his family
Throughout the entirety of the film, Lucía made a note to tell Diego that anything beyond the boundary was violent, bad, and evil. Salvador never disputed this fact. So when he chooses to leave his family unprotected at home despite the apparent danger that awaited him still makes no sense to me after watching this film twice. I genuinely don't understand. You can come up with all sorts of reasons, but at the end of the day, he chose to leave his family in a misbegotten effort to give a stranger closure. Maybe he's a nicer person than me, but the safety of my family comes first. No matter what.
Final Thoughts (TLDR)
I stand by my review of 3 out of 5 coffins. The Wasteland was a decent movie that strived to make its audience think about mental health, isolation, death, guilt, and fear. Through the lens of horror, we watched the destruction of a close-knit family and the resilience of a little boy forced into adulthood too soon. It was a beautiful movie whose detail-oriented cinematography was in no way misrepresented by the high praise it garnered. The downfall of this gorgeous and splendidly-acted film was the excruciatingly slow pacing and mind-boggling decisions some of the characters made. I'd say to give this movie a watch if you want to explore depression in 19th century fictional Spain and what it feels like to be stalked by a supernatural being. Just remember to read between the lines (or rather the director's shots) and be patient.
That Score Tho...
My review rubric standardizes my score and gives movies, games, literature, and more a fair shot at getting a decent score. Here's how this title stacks up.
Note: I round to the nearest integer.
|Entertainment||Was the title entertaining?||3 out of 5|
|Acting||Is the acting good/believable?||5 out of 5|
|Story||Did the story make sense?||2 out of 5|
|Technical||Was the title made well?||5 out of 5|
|Atmosphere||Did the title feel horrifying?||2 out of 5|
|Overall||Average score||3 out of 5|
Remember folks, at the end of the day, these are my opinions. I'd like to know if you agree with me but would love (even more) to know if you disagree and why. Experience this title for yourself and be your own judge.
And, if you're so inclined, I did a deep dive on this movie. I felt with so much left unsaid and left up to interpretation in the movie itself, it warranted more discussion. I go over spoilers and talk through each one of my more well-thought-out theories. You can check that out here.
'Til next time!