A big problem that fancy special effect spectaculars tend to have is over-explaining every single element of their world. Information dumps are as powerful as the processors whirring inside of the render farms finalizing their creations. It takes away from the magic, with long explanatory conversations blotting out the sun and leaving no space for the imagination to flourish in the understory. Less is almost always more. The Wanting Mare, the feature debut of writer/director/editor/VFX supervisor Nicholas Ashe Bateman, overcorrects from this problem but has an admirable ambition and impressive visual style nonetheless.
Bateman, mostly known for his VFX work, certainly knows how to set a scene. Opening titles inform us that there’s a community of constant summer, Whithren, where wild horses are exported on a yearly barge to a community of constant winter, Levithen. Tickets secreting yourself onto this annual escape are few and far between—illicitly traded, sold and stolen.
Everything’s a little run-down, a little ratty—but everyone has electricity and a roof over their heads. Moira (Jordan Monaghan) lives outside the poor fantasy port town. She inherited a nightly dream that’s contents are as vague as the rest of the film and that’s tone is as specific: It’s a haunting memory of a different world. This curse-like fragment, passed on between a series of women, is the first lingering sign that The Wanting Mare is a generational story as well as a sci-fi/fantasy with a much larger scope than it promises on the tin. Think Cloud Atlas meets Terrence Malick, with the half-baked elements threatening to ruin the flavor of the whole presentation.
Bateman, for his part, does a fine job wearing the majority of the hats he’s chosen to wear: His editing allows moments to either grow unbearably brimful or shaves them to the bone with jump cuts; he creates some exceptionally balanced and attractive compositions; and the FX is efficient and expansive in its lovely little glimpses at the Magic: The Gathering card art-style fantasy world beyond the characters’ relatively uninteresting borders. He and cinematographer David A. Ross create some striking images with harsh, in-frame lighting that emphasizes the smallness of the frame. The storytelling may be elusive, but you’ll never stop looking for it with shots like this.
That story involves Moira bumping into Lawrence (Bateman – did I mention he also acts in this?), a prospective ticket thief, and starting a romance with him. Bateman’s a solid director when it comes to actor movements and blocking—including sex scenes, both segmented and extended, that actually establish and use the actors’ sexiness by stacking sensuous curves and accentuating tactile skin-to-skin contact with a close camera and realistic physicality. The intimacy works, but that effectiveness dissipates when the characters actually have to talk to each other.
The dialogue is sparse and elliptical as we float onward in time to new acts and character groups—like Edmond Cofie and Yasamin Keshtkar’s couple, who have even less to do or say to each other—while the world remains vaguely criminal in a lawless-yet-lackadaisical, sweaty existence defined as much by the tickets as by the fashion’s flowy earth tones accessorized by piratey gold. It’s all a bit wooden until actors Josh Clark and Christine Kellogg-Darrin take over. The pair’s chemistry sells a solid finale that makes explicit the minor plot moments that actually worked well when more obscure. The movie trusts you to follow along…until it doesn’t. And even then, the characters are simple sketches that aren’t given enough to hold the emotions The Wanting Mare attempts to saddle on them. They may mirror the sliver of this world doled out on a sci-fi charcuterie board for us to appreciate in its starkness, but the elements often fail to complement each other. Room to infer in sci-fi imagery lets us build worlds in our minds; too much empty space in its characters and story, and we start asking too many questions, like “Why the hell do all these people want to go to this winter place anyways?”
But even after the questions and the impatience, its images linger. A Rembrandtesque death in childbirth, an inhuman body plummeting to the rocks near an ocean’s shore—these are what Bateman’s here to provide. Beautiful in both its successes and its failures, The Wanting Mare is mostly a testament to the lack of technological limits for sweeping genre stories at any production level. As long as the skill (and time and dedication) is there, even your poetic indie that could stand a co-writer can hang with the Annihilations of the world. It may not be a must-see movie for everyone, but a select few—scrappy DIY filmmakers, lovers of hands-off fantasy, those that love a good “film still as portrait”—will find something to enjoy. The rest might chafe a bit, but will still hang on to see where The Wanting Mare’s ride takes them.
Director: Nicholas Ashe Bateman
Writer: Nicholas Ashe Bateman
Stars: Jordan Monaghan, Yasmin Keshtkar, Edmond Cofie, Nicholas Ashe Bateman, Josh Clark, Christine Kellogg-Darrin
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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