Wildling. 2018. Directed by Fritz Böhm. Screenplay by Böhm & Florian Eder.
Starring Liv Tyler, Bel Powley, Brad Dourif, James Le Gros, Troy Ruptash, Mike Faist, & Collin Kelly-Sordelet.
Maven Pictures/Night Fox Entertainment/Studio Mao/Filmgate Films/ARRI Media Productions
Rated R. 92 minutes.
Despite the trend of journalists and critics who want to believe horror’s only recently become socially conscious, horror’s long been socially aware as a genre. Almost from its very beginning horror has allowed artists to exemplify the worst of humanity in a way that allows people to confront fear on a symbolic level, safely in front of the screen. Horror is a cathartic process, helping us deal with social, political, personal, and psychological issues, giving us terrifying situations in which we see ourselves and our world reflected.
Fritz Böhm’s Wildling is an allegorical tale of repressed feminine sexuality, as well as the potentially damaging relationships young women go on to have when their world is dominated by patriarch control. The movie takes place in a space where real world meets one of fairy tale and fantasy, heightening the fable-like atmosphere.
Admittedly it would’ve been nice to see the screenplay written by a woman. Despite that, Böhm and co-writer Florian Eder manage to capture a unique perspective about the transition from girlhood to womanhood, encapsulated in a strange horror crossing from a coming of age plot to one about the subjugation of young women in our society as a whole. If it were a bad movie it’d be easier to criticise Böhm and Eder. Instead, Wildling proves itself through the strength of its ideas, anchored by strong performances by Bel Powley, Liv Tyler, and Brad Dourif.
Even though children can turn out any number of ways regardless of parenting, there’s no doubt a person’s life is moulded by their parents. For girls, their relationship with their father can determine many things. In a Freudian sense, the father can determine a map for how their daughter relates to men for the rest of her life, so the damage can be palpable. In terms of women’s sexuality it’s always troubling to see the father who jokes a bit too much about protecting their daughters’ innocence— everyone knows that dad who talks about violently enforcing their little girl’s chastity. This policing of sexuality in girls/young women is perhaps the most significant type of patriarchal control a father can exert over his daughter.
Wildling sees Anna (Powley) raised in isolation by her Daddy (Dourif). From the start there’s a creepy, near incestual vibe about how Daddy cares for his daughter. Daddy keeps Anna locked away, presenting the world as a fantasy place where nothing dies because it’s planted in the ground and something natural grows from it, a world in which Anna must stay vigilant or else a scary beast will eat her alive. Later, we find Daddy’s also been injecting his daughter with drugs to stop her from menstruating. Thus the plot takes a dark allegorical turn.
The story of Anna and Daddy is that of the infatilisation of women. His stories are infantile constructions used to imprison her in a world of fairy tale logic, controlling and bending her wholly to his will. Parallel this with real life— rather than explain to girls how sexuality operates or letting them safely discover it themselves, the patriarch locks a young woman away, figuratively – though literally here in Wildling – and the patriarch tries to repress a young woman’s sexuality, gaslighting her, going so far as to fabricate a whole non-existent world.
The trajectory of Anna’s journey is fascinating. One of the more prominent ideas that jumps out is an idea of interior v. exterior – in terms of the body and also of the civilised space v. the wilderness. This is epitomised when Anna seeks out her family history, sent to a cave in the hills near town to discover the truth of her mother. This act of entering the cave, specifically after coming out of the ‘civilised’ space of town and going into a space outside the boundaries of the civilised space, is a reverse of Plato’s cave allegory.
For Plato, the coming out of the cave to see the real world, as opposed to shadows on the wall inside, was symbolic of discovering truth and knowledge for oneself. Anna goes from living in the so-called civilised world to crawling back into a cave where she finds her truth.
This is bigger than a nod to a Greek philosopher. This is representative of a retreat inward, a coming to grips with the self allowing freedom. For Anna to totally free herself from societal expectation, and of course the patriarchal control of Daddy, she has to go deeper inside on a personal journey rather than a physical, external journey. And once she goes into that cave, she finds not just knowledge and the truth, she rediscovers her power. Tying it all back in, that power in this movie is her femininity, symbolised by the discovery of her wildling heritage.
Another big aspect of the wildlings building themes of defined spaces, external v. internal or otherwise – although never officially said/shown – is, the wildlings all appear to be women. A huge statement in and of itself. Of significance in its allegorical context are the defined boundaries of gender roles. Anna’s entirely submerged in a world starkly contrasted by gender, perpetuated by an oppressive patriarch.
In the end, the wildling’s a symbol of patriarchal fear about the daughter’s femininity. However, for Daddy, the wildling’s just as symbolic of men— beasts out for blood, seeking sex by any means, the violent pervert who preys on young girls, the dangerous primitive male lurking in so many of us men. That’s why Wildling as a whole works as an allegory in several senses. But the strongest, most definitely, is inextricably linked to women.
In her book Monstrous Bodies: Feminine Power in Young Adult Horror Fiction, author June Pulliam writes about the “culturally sanctioned boundaries of femininity” and how feminine bodies can’t be forced into “the boundaries of [that] conventional femininity.” This is just about the thesis for Böhm’s movie. Anna is representative of how many young women feel when their bodies and their psychology changes after they begin the transition into womanhood, particularly once the menstrual cycle takes hold. The monster movie sub-genre of horror provides the framework via which Wildling discusses such changes.
On a basic level the movie operates as a fable about parents creating fantasy worlds for their children to live in as opposed to telling them the truth, no matter how difficult, and how this might lead to negative, if not dangerous consequences. In a more complex sense, Wildling is a metaphor about the process all girls go through physically and psychologically, in a world painfully focused on gender roles and ignorant of feminine sexuality. There are ways the story could be stronger, but the power of Powley’s central performance and the resonance of the screenplay’s themes carries it with strength, making this one of Father Gore’s favourites so far in 2018.