Why The Wasteland Warrants More Discussion: A Deep Dive

Psychological Horror Feb 20, 2022

Okay, so before I get started, my feelings about this film are best described as "meh." I liked the plot, but the execution didn't draw me in.  It was a slow burn that barely delivered, but I still think it's worth discussing. I thought they had a lot of important topics to discuss through the medium of film that got lost somewhere in the execution. However, I still can't give it more than 3 out of 5 coffins. Before I proceed, make sure you have either watched the movie and/or have read about my overall take in my review of the movie.  There will be spoilers and I'm going to assume you have a basic knowledge of the film.

If you read my review, then you know the three main aspects of the film that I didn't particularly like:

  1. 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.
  2. Watching the film for the first time, I sat there coming up with ways to make the movie more interesting and NOT paying attention.  That's never a good sign.  So not only am I coming up with crazy theories, but I'm also coming up with better story plots?  
  3. I was bored the first time I watched it. The second time, I had slightly more appreciation. But it shouldn't take me watching a movie twice for me to get what they were trying to say.

In this deep dive, I'm only going to discuss my theories and proof to back up those hypotheses. My interpretations could be wrong, but that's why we should talk a bit more about this movie before throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Here is a list of my best theories, in no particular order:

  1. The Beast was real.
  2. The father was hunted by the Beast.
  3. Mental illness plays a pivotal role in the story, just not the one we think.
  4. Depression is isolating and all-consuming.
  5. This was Diego's coming-of-age story.

Before we get underway, 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.

Now let's begin!  

Lucía and Diego sit by the fire as Salvador tells a scary story of his own.
Lucía and Diego listen as Salvador tells a story.

The Beast was real

Kinda.  So a lot of people have different theories.  Namely that the Beast was a hereditary mental illness.  It can't be that because Lucía is not related to Salvador or Juana. Another theory is mass hysteria or a shared delusion. That might work except that would mean that there were two instances of the same mass hysteria; once when Juana and Salvador were children and again for the events of this movie. That seems unlikely.  So, I'd like to posit another theory: the Beast is an ever-present manifestation of suffering made incarnate by despair and fear. Here's why.

Salvador tells Diego that the Beast wears you down until you have no hope.  It's the boogeyman who convinces you to kill yourself when you become despondent... when you despair. So many people in this story had reason enough to feel that way:

  1. Juana, who was mercilessly abused as a child by her own parents;
  2. Lucía, who was suddenly thrust into single parenthood and poverty after the death of her husband;
  3. The man from the boat, who likely was caught up in an onslaught of Spanish wars that meant violence for everyone; and finally
  4. Salvador, who could not escape the guilt of his sister's death by suicide.

When I say that the Beast is real, I mean that the Beast is real to them. The guilt, despair, hopelessness, and fear that plagued them conjured up a supernatural bloodhound of sorts that wouldn't let go until its prey has succumbed to the most destructive of thoughts. In the third act of the movie, Diego starts to see the Beast.  He finally starts to despair when he realizes he can no longer count on his mother or her protection, something she had so readily offered him when she had hope herself. Diego was able to push the Beast back in the final encounter because he was not afraid anymore, he was angry that this Beast ruined his joyful mother. Righteous anger kept him from succumbing to despair. However, the fact that he could still see the Beast at the end meant that despair and depression would forevermore be a constant in his life, even if at the back of his mind.

The father was hunted by the Beast

After the incident with the man from the boat, Diego directly asks Salvador if he saw the Beast and if the man did as well.  You could see Salvador about to nod his head, but stop himself.  He says in response that if he (the Beast) sets his sights on you, you're doomed.  That non-answer aside, Salvador exhibits the signs of being targeted by the Beast.  There are two clear instances: 1) engraving the shotgun, and 2) standing in the field.  

Thoughts of suicide are a clear sign that the Beast is closing in.  For Diego's birthday, Salvador engraves his name on the butt of the family shotgun to give it to him as a gift... to a 10-year-old. Okay.  Whatever.  When Salvador is done carving in Diego's name, he puts the barrel under his chin.  I don't know about you, but that's the last place I'm putting the barrel of a gun, loaded or not.  You could see the despair in his eyes and his overall change in countenance. He might not have done it then, but he definitely thought about it.

And the second time was when Diego spots the man in the boat coming down the river and he calls out to Salvador.  Salvador just stands in the field looking off into the horizon and can't hear Diego until he touches Salvador's arm and tells him about the boat.  That haunting stare is another sign that we learned from Juana, who was seen staring off into the horizon moments before she jumped. I think that after Juana's death, Salvador finally saw the Beast that preyed upon his sister. I think the guilt of not helping her when he believed he could have caused him to despair and become the next victim that the Beast would chase to the ends of the earth. And who knows? Maybe those eerie posts that he made to mark their territory were talismans that kept the Beast out. Makes you think, huh?

But if those signs don't convince you, then maybe this will.  At the beginning of the movie, when the writers set up the family dynamics and establish the before and after dichotomy, Salvador is eager to get Diego to learn how to "be a man" and take care of himself.  It's almost as if he knew he wouldn't always be around. Like he felt the despair crawling to the surface, luring the Beast.  A responsible parent might try to prepare their child for the worst if they knew their children would need to fend for themselves at some point early on in life. Salvador sternly attempts to teach Diego how to kill rabbits and shoot a gun. Both times, Lucía shuts that down immediately. Her excuse was that Diego is still a child and doesn't need to learn about being a man just yet. Something that Lucía will come to regret when Diego is unable to kill for food and she calls him a coward more than once.

I think that in the same way that Black parents have the talk with their children about the dangers of living in the US, Salvador was trying to prepare Diego for the Beast. Or maybe I'm crazy and this was just his machismo showing.

Lucía points the shotgun at something behind Diego, which is scary for him because it seemed for a second like she was aiming at him.
Lucía aims at Diego... sort of.

Mental illness plays a pivotal role in the story, just not the one we think

I mentioned earlier that the Beast latched onto Lucía because of her depression and trauma.  If the Beast feeds on fear, then it makes sense for it to feast on depression, anxiety, and trauma too.  However, this whole story just being about overcoming fear is a little too pedestrian. I think the point is to watch the decline and breakdown that Lucía goes through.  She goes from the fun-loving mother that Diego could hide behind to the person he fears and needs protection from to the person he must protect at the end.  How her character devolves is absolutely brilliant. Hard to watch, but amazing in the transitions.  This is my favorite aspect of the movie. Not because I like to watch people suffer, but because of how amazingly the actress portrayed the transition from hopeful and content to despondent and suicidal.

As someone who has personally dealt with depression, I can attest that it is no joking matter. It can be debilitating; it can change the way you eat, think, and move; and it can make you think some dark thoughts you wouldn't normally. It is important for us to watch Lucía's decline because that could easily be us. According to NAMI Metro, the most common symptoms of depression are:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of energy
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Hopelessness or guilty thoughts
  • Changes in movement (less activity or agitation)
  • Suicidal thoughts

Lucía exhibited all of these to a T. The first change we notice is in her sleep patterns. On the first night of Salvador being away, both Lucía and Diego are restless, find it hard to sleep, and leave room for Salvador in the bed. As the days go on, Lucía sleeps more and the space for Salvador on the bed narrows. Finally, settled into their own sides of the bed, Diego tries to wake Lucía for her birthday and she can't be bothered to get out of bed.

We also notice a change in her appetite. As the parent, it is up to Lucía to provide food for both her and Diego, yet there are plates of rotten food left on the dinner table. It's food that has been wasted. Lucía can cook, but she's too depressed to do so. And if she's not in the mood to eat, nothing gets cooked. Diego tried to make her a pie for her birthday and was using spoiled eggs. If my garden/farm were destroyed after a storm and I was running out of food, I wouldn't let anything rot. I for sure wouldn't let the farm animals die without getting enough meat to turn into jerky (I play way too many survival horror games). I'd find a way to preserve and make the food that we did have stretch. But then again, I have the luxury of not being depressed, traumatized, and in mourning at the moment.

A lack of concentration and energy go hand in hand. Many times, Diego catches Lucía staring off into space with no will to move. As I mentioned, depression can be debilitating. You don't feel like doing anything. It's hard to get out of bed, it's hard to think.

Diego speaks into the tin can telephone outside the window.
Diego after begging Lucía (offscreen) to play telephone with him

The way they show Lucía's lack of interest in activities is a clear juxtaposition of what life was like before Salvador left and after. In the before time, Lucía was eager to play with Diego. They played hand games and I Spy, had breathing contests underwater, and played telephone with tin cans. In the after time, Lucía would outright refuse to play or pervert their games into something sinister. After Diego stopped his mother from wasting their last shotgun shell, she told him not to touch her and told him he smelled. He told her she did too.  So as usual, they took a bath together.  In the before time, baths were heated with water that Salvador brought to them; it was an event filled with laughter and play. Now the water was cold and Lucía was different.

Diego, for the first time, does not want to play or try to make his mother feel better. He wants to bathe and get out. But Lucía pushes his head underwater and goads him into a breathing contest. Diego acquiesces and stays under for 1 count. Lucía calls him a coward again and says she can beat him at the game. So Lucía stays under the water for an excruciating 35 seconds until a worried Diego has to pull her up. She then teases him and says she could have stayed down longer. She took a low-stakes competition and subverted its innocence. Now, Diego will probably never look at baths the same.

In the beginning of the second act, Lucía's depression gets worse when Salvador's belongings and horse return without him. She becomes hopeless and starts to despair. The high probability of Salvador being dead is the catalyst that Lucía needs to finally push Diego to learn how to club a rabbit, stab, and shoot a gun. Something Salvador had been trying to teach Diego for a while.  In the middle of the third act, she becomes agitated and refuses to let go of the shotgun. It never leaves her side even after almost shooting Diego. That's also the time when she starts manically creating effigies of the Beast out of the wood from furniture around the house.  

And last but certainly not least, Lucía tries and succeeds in listening to her suicidal thoughts.

But why is her depression so important?  Because it leads me to what I think might be the most important and obvious theory. The story is an allegory about battling depression in the midst of a global pandemic stuck in isolation with nowhere to go as the outside world is unsafe.

Depression is isolating and all-consuming.

So hear me out. In the intro, the word "aislarse"/"isolate" is highlighted, something I completely missed in my first watch. Foreshadowing. Enter COVID-19 and its cohort of asshole variants.  

From songs to webtoons, you can't escape the specter of a global pandemic.  It has seeped into our media for one reason alone: write what you know.  Writers everywhere are using their experiences with this pandemic as fodder for the creative machine.  It is/was a once in a lifetime (we hope) experience that has affected us irrevocably.  There's before the pandemic and after/during.  There is nothing else.  There will forever be this dichotomy of life before the MTA decided to clean the trains and after, before we all spent the better part of 1 year+ stuck at home and after, before millions of people died... and after.  Isolation hit us hard. Most people were unprepared. And it left us all traumatized, lacking in social skills, unable to focus, agitated, and irrational. What better way to talk about the very real implications of living in lockdown for months on end while people we know and love die than as allegory?

As an allegory, we can examine what we went through in a less painful way; in a story within a story. Watching your mother go from your rock, your north star, to a woman who would manipulate and bully you is difficult to do. Especially if you know it's the fear and depression poisoning her mind and actions. But, if she's battling an obsessive creature hellbent on feeding off of what's poisoning her, then we can accept and discuss what losing our loved ones during a pandemic to suicide might be like. It's easier for us to talk about fictional characters than to accept that people are fragile, yet strong; resilient, yet prone to anxiety; courageous, and yet still scared.

So let's get down to the crux of the issue... what Covid was like in Spain. Much like the US and other countries around the globe, Spain saw multiple lockdowns, prolonged isolation, and high COVID mortality rates. The fear and despair that accompanies a global pandemic were worldwide. The early days here in Brooklyn were sheer nightmare fuel, I can only imagine in other countries. And nightmare fuel makes for good stories.  So like songs about hooking up during a pandemic or webtoons about demons making people sick, this movie is a product of the time. And thanks to the times, we all know what prolonged isolation is like and the effects it has on mental health and illness, and even instances of domestic violence.

COVID-19 case fatality rate for 2020-2022
Linear graph of COVID-19 case fatality rates in Spain, the US, and the world overall.

According to a study on gender violence during the pandemic published in SciELO, there was a rise in calls reporting violence against women, children, and people with disabilities in Spain in 2020. Let's not forget that Salvador pointed his gun at Lucía, and in turn, Lucía pointed that very same gun at Diego more than once. Strife in the home and uneasiness and fear about world events can create an atmosphere of hopelessness, which is only exacerbated by the necessary isolations that we all went through. The following is a translated excerpt from the brief that shows the impact of isolation on single-parent families and people with disabilities:

...we must consider that part of the population cannot maintain this physical distance and that it is exposed to greater vulnerability, such as single parent families or the case of people with disabilities and great support needs for their basic activities of daily life, tasks that, both formally and informally, are carried out mostly by women. In short, the burden of care in the private sphere and in socio-health care services falls, therefore, to a much greater extent, on women than on men; a reality that is also invisible in most analyzes of the crisis.

Basically, prolonged lockdowns are hard for people who don't have support structures in place in case of an emergency, like many single parents, people living with abusers, some people with disabilities, and disproportionately women tasked with holding down the family unit. I think it's interesting that here in the US, under the Americans with Disabilities Act and "enforced" in the workplace by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC), depression is considered a psychiatric disability. IF that's the case in Spain as well, then someone like Lucía, who is now a single mother with a disability and who is exhibiting abusive behavior toward her son, is exposed to greater vulnerability. Her isolation and lack of support structures make her a prime contender for a mental health crisis.

Let's take her out of this psychological horror story and plop her into the unjustifiably terrible pandemic. Her husband is a first responder (he "healed" the man on the boat, stay with me here) who gets Covid. He goes directly to the hospital for treatment, never returning home from his shift. He is unable to call Lucía and she is notified by the hospital only after he has died. The anxiety of not knowing if he was dead or alive at first and now the trauma of knowing for a fact sends her into depression. But she has a son at home, whom she is now neglecting and emotionally abusing (e.g., them not bathing, her not cooking, calling him a coward, holding a knife to his throat for "demonstration" purposes) and cannot afford to feed on her own (e.g., a lack of food now that the farm is destroyed). She tries to kill herself and her son saves her, which adds to his trauma. Eventually, she tries again and is successful, which leaves the son to fend for himself when he's taken by Child Protective Services – trauma begetting more trauma.

Diego stares beyond the boundaries of their property as he looks for a runaway rabbit.
The posts demarcate the boundary around the family's property separating safety and violence.

So the final note before we move on is about suicide. According to a study from December 2021 and published in Science Direct in January 2022 about Spanish suicide rates, "Although annual mortality rates were not significantly different, an increased suicide risk was found from May 2020 onwards. Our results claim for action to tackle suicide in the post-pandemic era..." What this means is that there is not enough data or the data does not necessarily support saying that Covid caused an increase in suicides, however, the heightened risk is something to pay attention to and combat moving forward. I might be reading too much into this movie, but at the very least, it seems like the writers want the movie to be a catalyst for discussions about family dynamics and suicide during the pandemic and what that means for Spain and mental health initiatives moving forward.

This was Diego's coming-of-age story.

In a messed-up sense, this movie was more about Diego's loss of innocence than it was about Lucía's depression and Salvador's death.  The entirety of this story is told from the viewpoint of Diego. We see what he sees, hear what he hears; we're along for the ride whether we want to join him or not. For better or worse, we see Diego's adultification in real-time and it's sad. He starts off as a child who plays with his mother, feeds his rabbits, and definitely doesn't know how to shoot a gun or break down a door with an ax. He's scared and timid until he is simply... not.

Let's talk briefly about what adultification is.  According to a report released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2007, adultification is when a child or adolescent adopts:

early adult roles... assuming adult-like traits and responsibilities, which often occurs within a family, such as providing extensive caregiving to parents or younger siblings.

When Salvador leaves, the last thing he tells his son is to take care of his mother. That's not Diego's responsibility, but now that Salvador is gone, that has become his job. I'm sure you've heard people say "you're the man/woman of the house now" when a parent dies or leaves for some reason (abandonment, incarceration, sickness, etc). It is very much the same for 10-year-old Diego. He makes a pie and cooks his rabbit Lion for his mother, he cuts his own hair, he goes to the roof to shoot the Beast, he restrains her so that she won't try to kill herself again... this list goes on.

However, this adultification does not go unnoticed. There are small moments when Lucía realizes what is happening and is, what I would hope, taken aback by how much life has changed. My favorite instance of this occurring is when Diego moves from his seat in the middle of the dinner table to sit in Salvador's seat at the opposite head of the table to Lucía. She's rightfully not having it and nonverbally tells him to go back to his place, next to his mother as a child and not opposite like an equal – not in his father's place. Another example is their sleeping situation. There is symbolism in allowing your son to sleep beside you occupying the same space and amount of room as your late husband.

By the end of the film, Diego has made significant strides in becoming a 10-year-old adult:

  1. He knows to mask the sound of and time the unloading of a gun to the crash of thunder;
  2. He can eat his furry little friends to stave off starvation or cut the rot out of a tomato;
  3. He can defy his mother's orders when they go against logic;
  4. He can shoot at a monster, real or otherwise; and
  5. He is able to pull a full-sized, grown woman for miles in a wooden cart.

The most telling aspect of his newfound adulthood is not that he's alone, but that he has finally broken his isolation. He has crossed the threshold of what was once a space that evoked feelings of safety and home to venture out into the unknown wasteland of violence and fear. Diego literally burns down his family home and leaves it behind, like shedding his skin, or finally destroying the last vestiges of his childhood.

In Conclusion

Yeah, I could be thinking too much about this.  I could be reading too deeply between the lines looking for something that just isn't there.  But honestly, I don't think it's as simple as that.  I genuinely think that the writers wanted to create a story that explored mental health, suicide, and fear during a stressful time of isolation and death. They wanted us to think about the impact of a parent battling depression on a child and how they have to grow up faster than they should. Because the writers tried to create such a story, I'm willing to be more forgiving than the average viewer. This story deserves discussion, but I doubt that rightfully confused or bored viewers are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

It's not a bad film, I enjoyed it (more so the second time I watched it). But it shouldn't require a second viewing to be willing to engage with the subject matter. To be fair, I noticed a lot the first time around, but I understand why many viewers missed the point. They were confused and bored. The story was subtle to a fault; subtle to the point where I had to figure out what the point was in even making this film.  The problem was that they had a great concept, but it was executed poorly.  And it wasn't the acting.

The family seated at the dinner table for Diego's birthday as Salvador aims the shotgun at Lucía for demonstration purposes.
The family at Diego's birthday dinner party

So please remember this folks, at the end of the day, these are my opinions.  If I was wrong about any of the details of the movie or COVID statistics, please let me know in the comments.  Also, I'd like to know if you agree with my analysis but would love (even more) to know if you disagree and why. So if you can make it through a 93-minute movie that feels like it's 120, go and give this title a second chance. Be your own judge.

'Til next time!


Sources: [1] IMDb, [2] Wikipedia, [3] COVID-19 Pandemic in Spain, [4] SciELO, [5] Science Direct, [6] DV and CA, [7] Podiatry Today, [8] NAMI Metro, [9] EEOC, [10] Our World in Data, [11] NIH.

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