[Review] Wastelands (2020)


Kemal Yildirim’s film Wastelands is touring festivals with eighteen selections, six nominations and nine awards under its belt. Graham Williamson reviews for Horrified...

Currently the British independent horror scene is healthy enough for someone to have a decent, if subterranean, career exploring personal themes and styles with a loyal cast of regulars. For anyone who, like me, has an unfashionable dedication to auteur theory, this should be cause for celebration. If you don’t… well, it still means you’ve got a better-than-usual chance of sitting down to watch a low-budget independent horror movie that’s polished, interesting and distinctive, so everybody wins.

   Kemal Yildirim is an actor, writer, producer and director who’s currently making a name for himself exploring the borderlands between horror and social realism. His feature Rose (UK, 2012) could be read as a straightforward crime drama about a drug addict struggling to escape a brutal pimp, but it has just enough expressionistic touches – its nameless town is nicknamed Hellville – to tip you off as to Yildirim’s other ideas. At the moment he’s working on The Haunting of the Lady-Jane, which promises to be a richly traditional, atmospheric ghost story. His newest release, Wastelands, is adapted from his 2017 short Saudade, and could be interpreted as a transitional form in between Rose and The Haunting of the Lady-Jane – if that didn’t sell short how intriguing it is in its own right.

   Described by Yildirim as his most personal film to date, Wastelands (UK, Kemal Yildirim, 2020) is a film about grief, illness, broken family relationships and toxic relationships that also includes strong folk-horror elements. The question of whether this is a family tragedy dressed up with folk horror clothes or an occult horror dressed as a drama remains productively ambiguous right until the end. What can’t be doubted is the commitment of Yildirim, who co-writes with Mol Smith, produces, directs and stars as the male lead Tristan.

   The female lead, and the focus of most of the film by a colossal distance, is Alice, played with faultless intensity by Natasha Linton. Alice is the kind of unassuming working-class woman who might be played by Vicky McClure or Rosamund Hanson in one of Shane Meadows’s films, but Wastelands’ positioning as a film somewhere outside the mainstream social realist tradition means Linton has to go to surreal, psychosexual, pagan places these characters aren’t often permitted to explore.

   Speaking as someone who spent most of the 2000s boiling in barely-suppressed rage at the amount of casual ‘chav’-bashing in ostensibly liberal public discourse, I was delighted that Yildirim and Smith let Linton venture out into this terrain while maintaining her working-class identity. She works a drab job at a local cafe, where she’s frequently called on to referee couples fighting in the shop while she serves. She has a fabulous, huge, fuzzy blue coat, which is the sort of thing some other film might just have used as a signifier of tastelessness, but when Alice wears it you realise she’s trying to present herself as a big furry monster.

   Alice’s defences are up for two reasons. Firstly, her father Wilhelm has contracted Huntington’s disease, which is a double heartbreak for her as it brings her stepmother back into her life. The first scene between said stepmother, Nicola Wright’s Dolores, and Alice is a gem – so much information is transmitted without dipping into clumsy exposition. The first time we hear of Alice’s mother, Alice bristles, and accuses Dolores of only marrying her father to get her hands on the inheritance her mother left him. It sets up the family’s history very nicely, though you also feel like you’ve got a good impression of Alice and Dolores’s history just from Linton’s reaction shot when Alice’s mother is mentioned.

   The wicked stepmother is, of course, a fairy-tale tradition, though Dolores doesn’t seem wicked here. For Alice, you suspect no-one could replace her mother, partly because she’s her mother, but partly because the loss of her mother has broken the matrilineal bond central to her feminist paganism. Alice is repeatedly shown in acts of worship, repeating incantations like ‘You have power over your mind’ and ‘I am a threat to patriarchy and a threat to the established order,’ but she is finding these mantras increasingly hard to believe. It’s this that leads her to the other situation she dreads; her ex-lover Tristan, played by Yildirim, coming back into her life.

   When Wastelands is about the pain of watching a family member slowly decline, it’s very easy to see what Yildirim’s investment in this story is. When it becomes about sexual obsession, the viewer’s defences might rise as much as Alice’s: is this another film about a woman’s sexuality directed by a man, a man who also plays her partner? Yes, although I think Yildirim does right by this subject. The sex is frequent but avoids the worst excesses of male-gaze staging, even if it doesn’t quite manage to use the physical to shine a light on the psychological. David Cronenberg routinely manages this, as does the late Carolee Schneeman, whose classic short Fuses (USA, Carolee Scheeman, 1969) is graphic enough to make Wastelands look like a children’s show but which leaves an impression of elation and abstract sensuality that this film could have used. I mention this because I think Yildirim can do it – he actually has some grounding in feminist art, naming Frida Kahlo as an influence on The Haunting of the Lady-Jane, and giving Alice some furious, borderline self-harming hair-combing scenes that recall Marina Abramovic’s performance piece Art Must Be Beautiful/Artist Must Be Beautiful (Denmark, Marina Abramovic, 1975).

   One of the dangers of making films about depression and self-destructive behaviour is that it can easily become repetitive. The conditions themselves involve helplessly repetitive behavioural cycles, and portraying this honestly can be almost as numbing as living through it. The middle act of Wastelands might not be as striking as the beginning and the end, but it feels repetitive in a purposeful way; it’s Alice who is struggling to find a direction, not Yildirim.

   The thing that really elevates Wastelands, apart from Linton, is Yildirim’s own skill as a stylist. The opening scene of Alice waiting at an anonymous new-town train station is a wonderful piece of edgelands melancholia, and the boredom of her daily routine is neatly conveyed by a brilliantly precise match cut from Alice wiping a kitchen surface at work to Alice stirring a pot of stew at home. There’s a marshland scene which seems to involve – praise be! – a tastefully used, non-gratuitous drone shot, as well as a gorgeous early push-in on Alice becoming lost in her thoughts at work. Yet it’s not just show-offery: every attention-grabbing shot and camera move helps draw us into Alice’s world, and continues Yildirim’s mission to show everyday lives and places in haunting, unique ways.

Picture of Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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