When I was in middle school, we’d periodically have a writer, Jon Land, come and talk to us. He’d talk about writing and life and whatever else. (Honestly, I don’t really remember what most of those talks were about, but whatever.) I do, however, remember one particular talk. It was Halloween, and four teachers blocked off a several hour period together. All the kids (dozens of us) huddled in the science room, the lights were turned off, and candles were lit to give the whole thing Atmosphere.
Instead of a talk, he told us a story. Not one of his own, though; he told us the story of Stephen King’s Misery, although tweaked here and there for pacing, timing, and the like. (He did it entirely from memory.) It’s not like I hadn’t read Stephen King by that point, but having a good storyteller really bring it to life was much creepier and much more enjoyable.
Shrew’s Nest is kinda like that.
[Shrew’s Nest screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Scary Movies 9” series. It’s still going on, and you should definitely check it out!]
Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas)
Directors: Juan Fernando Andrés and Esteban Roel
The term “slow burn” gets thrown around a lot. I know I’ve used it more than once. Sometimes it’s a useful term to describe how a film functions; other times it’s a way to say something is boring without having to use that language. Sometimes people think things are a slow burn when they’re really not.
Shrew’s Nest isn’t a slow burn, though I know of others who say it is. Those people are either accidentally ignorant or willfully ignorant, but either way they’re wrong. They’re wrong, because the sequence of events that ultimately lead to the narrative boiling over aren’t slow at all. They’re very deliberate, placed perfectly in order to ratchet up the tension while also revealing the multiple facets of each character. At first, we see characters effectively through their own eyes, how they try to present themselves to the world. Then we see them through the eyes of others, where some of those seams start to show. Ultimately, we see them for who they truly are. And, not unexpectedly, what we find there isn’t pretty.
Montse is confined to the house. Not by some external force but an internal one. She can make it to the door, but she’ll never go past it. Her sister, who she refers to as niña (translated as “the girl”), can go out. The girl goes to work during the day, and Montse stays home. She cooks and cleans and makes sure that her sister stays away from men. Because men are bad people who do bad things. (Note that it’s clear almost immediately what happened to Montse, but that doesn’t make the ultimate reveal any less painful, nor does it really prepare you for what follows.)
One day, a man basically falls into her lap. As Carlos tries to leave his apartment (a floor above the girls’), he falls down the stairs, breaking his leg and hitting his head. After asking for her help, he faints. She brings him inside, binds his leg, and puts him in her bed. What follows, of course, is misery. Also, Misery. From the outset you know that Montse is unhinged, but the question is how far she’ll go to keep Carlos there. The answer: Really Fucking Far.
But in order to get to that point, we need context. Montse is viscous, something we learn early on, but seeing how her madness manifests itself is crucial to making the violence feel justified. Violence for the sake of violence can be fine, but there’s something disquietingly realistic about characters in Shrew’s Nest. Montse has had a rough time of it, and her psyche has been shaped accordingly. The girl is a little afraid of her sister, but the relationship is at the point where that’s generally fine, until Carlos comes into the picture. Carlos isn’t particularly concerned, particularly since Montse is so kind to him, but he doesn’t understand the situation. He believes her when she says she had a doctor visit, but we know she’s lying. Each time a character makes a decision, even if they make the wrong one, it felt fair. Characters do stupid things, but so do people. And characters don’t do certain stupid things that they would be expected to do in a horror movie.
Shrew’s Nest is not particularly scary, but it is consistently unsettling. It’s also claustrophobic, taking place entirely in a single apartment building (two apartments and the stairwell between them). That’s good both for both budgetary and narrative reasons. The world never really feels larger than the one building, even as people other than the leads come in and out. That’s important, because Shrew’s Nest takes place in a place where other people live. Misery was in the middle of nowhere, but Montse doesn’t have that sort of luxury, and neither do the filmmakers. This building – and really just the one apartment – needs to feel like the entire world, and it succeeds in that respect.
In fact, it succeeds in pretty much every respect. The minor issues I had ultimately don’t matter, and as I think back on it, I barely even remember what they were. Only the good things stick in my brain, and there are a whole lot of good things. It’s well crafted, well acted, well concepted, and well executed. There are some moments that are truly grotesque in the absolute best way, and there are images I’m not going to be able to scrub from my mind for quite some time. With a film like this, that’s really all you can want. And Shrew’s Nest delivers that and a whole lot more.