The Wanting Mare Review: Tolkien Meets David Lynch in Bateman’s Haunting Directorial Debut
Many of you probably heard about The Wanting Mare, as I did, through word that Shane Carruth was involved in the production. Carruth is, of course, the filmmaker behind Primer and Upstream Color, famously low budget films packed with complex storylines and big ideas. Nicholas Ashe Bateman follows in Carruth’s footsteps with The Wanting Mare.
A plethora of articles have already been written about the incredible ambition of Bateman’s film. With a shoe-string budget (partially funded through an IndieGogo campaign), Bateman attempts to create a C.S. Lewis or Tolkien-esque world with the help of a MacBook Pro, some open source 3D graphics software, and an abandoned warehouse in New Jersey.
Bateman has been filming since 2016 and finally got to premiere The Wanting Mare, virtually, at the 2020 Chattanooga Film Festival. So, how did it turn out?
The film opens with brief text introducing us to Aenmare, the world Bateman create (his “middle-earth”, so to speak):
Just north of the city of Withren, hidden in the heat, wild horses run along the coast.
Once a year, they are trapped and exported to the southern tip of Levithen; to a city in constant Winter.
There are tickets for passage aboard this yearly transport ship, but they are a rare commodity.
As the text fades, we’re given our first glimpse of Withren and quickly learn this is not the colorful world of hobbits or mythical beasts. Haunting music plays quietly as the camera sweeps over dark land and a sea barely visible behind a thick fog. The unsettling ambiance only escalates as the first words spoken in the film are a woman’s last. Dying in childbirth, she whispers to her newborn daughter, warning her of the burden she’ll carry.
Moira, the daughter left behind, will inherit a recurring dream that has been passed down through the generations. The dream contains memories of another age long ago where magic and myth were alive in the world. We don’t have to wait long to see how this affects Moria. Seconds later, the film catapults us years into the future where we rejoin her as an adult.
The disjointed feeling of leaping from one moment to another with little transition or context is one that rears its head throughout the movie. This is either a testament to Bateman’s artistic vision or an unfortunate side-effect of attempting to tell a sprawling, decades-long story in just under 90 minutes.
In an interview with No Film School, Bateman shares that he’s been writing about the world in which The Wanting Mare takes place since he was a teenager. To Bateman’s well-earned credit, this comes across on screen. Coming out of the movie, I felt that what I saw was just one small slice of a grander world created by Nicholas Ashe Bateman. Whether or not this movie works for you will largely depend on whether or not you feel the slice of world we received is enough. Unfortunately for me, it often felt like too much of the story was left behind in that grander world we only glimpse.
There are individual moments throughout The Wanting Mare that work tremendously. The visual effects at the center of conversation around this movie are impressive. They are used to great effect in communicating a somber mood and showing, without explicitly telling us, that something is seriously wrong in the world of Anmaere .
There are also quiet character moments that have stuck with me since my initial viewing. In a scene reminiscent of Audrey’s dance from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, we see Moira illuminated only by some dim blue lights, singing along to appropriately haunting tones. This scene and ones like it through The Wanting Mare capture a powerful emotion like loneliness or love and communicate it through Bateman’s impressive visual poetry.
The moments that work best in this movie are those that successfully communicate mood or a striking visual. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers from the disjointed storytelling style. We often begin a scene with little context, skipping character or plot development necessary for complete immersion. I believe Bateman often withhold’s context intentionally and sometimes this is effective. It can create shock or unsettle the audience as we land in unexpected places from one scene to the next. However, this comes with the risk of disengaging with audiences and that is where I found myself too often – occasionally impressed and moved but often disconnected and preoccupied trying to solve the puzzle of what I’m seeing.
Ultimately, for me, Bateman succeeded in building a new world and often succeeded in sharing the tone of this world with us. However, I think a more focused narrative or at least a more connected one with appropriate time to be told would have served the film better.
I would recommend the film if you’re curious to see something different from standard Hollywood fare and want to feel transported to a strange, slightly unsettling world. I’d also add that I think Bateman is a filmmaker to watch. In a future film, I can imagine Bateman successfully combining his ability to build strange new worlds and communicate mood with a strong, cohesive narrative to create something truly remarkable.
Whatever he does next, I look forward to seeing it.