As we all know, wildlings are people that live north of the wall that the Rangers, or Black Brothers like to kill. Oh, this isn’t Game of Thrones? I just thought what with the 7 year wait it must be. In that case … What exactly is a wildling? I’m not sure. I’d thought it was a werewolf, but now… . Regardles, Wildling is a relatively original take on the transformative-mutational journey story. It’s original enough that it deserves the courtesy of taking it at face value and face reaction: meaning, I don’t want to think too hard about it because there’s a danger it might all come to pieces without the shield of its strong first act. It’s smart filmmaking and it’s entertaining as hell, and that’s probably all you need to know up front.
Director: Fritz Böhm
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Anna (predominantly portrayed by Bel Powley) is a very young girl having bedtime stories read to her by her Daddy (the phenomenal Brad Dourif whom is particularly great as Doc Cochran in Deadwood and Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings). In the dark. These stories seem kind of gothic; actually, they’re not really appropriate bedtime material—more like the stories you tell around a campfire to scare one another. This is the first hint that things aren’t as they should be, and then hints are dropped in favor of blatant storytelling. Anna is locked in her room. There are bars on the window.
She spends her time in isolation between visits from Daddy who warns her of the danger of the “wildling,” a creature who sounds reminiscent of a werewolf and who’s fond of eating small children. Daddy tells Anna that she’s locked in her room for her own protection, to keep her from the wildling. Daddy tells her a lot of things, about why her door is electrocuted (also for her protection), about why she never sees anyone else (there is no one else in existence), about why he injects her with a needle daily (it’s medicine to keep her healthy). Clearly, we gather, Daddy’s not being exactly forthright with Anna.
This is smart filmmaking with details designed to tell both the story of Anna’s captivity and upbringing through the years from young child to young woman and, simultaneously, of Daddy’s obvious duplicity and misdirection. When Anna can no longer take her captivity, or physical infirmity, or both, she asks Daddy to send her to the “better place,” a clever concept Daddy has planted in her mind to allow her to accept the idea of death, and perhaps to even long for it.
By now, we know that there is no wildling, and that Daddy is keeping Anna in confinement, and we suspect there’s more to Anna than meets the eye. No she’s not a fucking Transformer, fanboy! She’s the wildling! But surprise surprise, Daddy has grown to have genuine feelings for his captive and when she asks him to kill her, he turns his gun on himself instead.
After Daddy’s brains are sprayed across Anna’s face, she wakes in a hospital to find that there’s a great big world out there, with far more people than Daddy, and by the way, Daddy aint yo daddy girl.
An incredibly soft-spoken Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) is waiting for Anna to recover enough to speak with her. She found Anna after a neighbor heard the gunshot and called the police. Cooper develops an affinity for Anna, understanding some of the girl’s plight, if not the extent of her isolation or upbringing. In fact, that’s probably the scariest aspect of this film, not the wildling, or the horror elements, but the reality that a child could be kept in confinement and brought up to believe whatever its captors deemed fit for it to. This actually happens in our world, and I think, as an audience, we’re aware of this reality and it strengthens the reactions to these early scenes, so much so that you’re inclined to gloss over the less masterfully created moments in the film.
Anna, a now teenage young woman, think high school age, has known only captivity, a single room, and a single person for the duration of her life. Freed into the wide world, and her awe is about as extensive as yours or mine might be from flipping on a light switch. Sure, she demonstrates an appropriate lack of awareness about being in a car, or what certain words or social cues mean, or what certain foods taste like. However, everything should be an experience for her, and I think it’s actually underplayed. Instead, focus is given to her quirks; her penchant for going barefoot, or for hearing conversations from across the room, obvious (and intentionally so) cues to her wildling status, but this isn’t revelatory, as we’ve known this (or suspected strongly) from early moments.
And for bringing a girl into a world of billions from a world of two, there are shockingly few people to interact with. The main cast is filled out with 5 other regulars, including Cooper’s younger, high-school aged brother, Collin. Let’s not dwell too long on Collin who takes it upon himself to first show Anna porn on the internet (to teach her where babies come from), or to kiss her at a party (because, dude, she was asking for it), or to bone her in the woods after taking her wet clothes off (she was going to get sick! He’s jut looking out for her!). Didn’t his cop-sister explain to him how emotionally fragile Anna is? Wouldn’t they presume that a girl kept in captivity from birth might have been the victim of sexual abuse? Would they just throw her into a sexual relationship with the brother of the woman who’s taken responsibility for her? WAIT. WAIT, WAIT, WAIT! I told you, I enjoyed Wildling and I wasn’t going to think too hard about it. Stopping thinking, now.
Somehow, Anna is attending high school with Colin (which makes perfect sense) and it’s there that we meet some archetypal bullies. You know, bullies who bully characters we know because that’s what bullies do, no explanation needed. And then there’s a “wolf man.” No, not a wolfman like a werewolf, but a wolfman like a man who walks through town dressed in buckskins and a wolf-pelt hat. He’s got one crazy eye and no one finds him out of the ordinary, including me, because I have a man just like this in my town, actually. His name is Robert, and he’s actually got a fascinating backstory—wait I digress. Only, I’m trying to not think about Wildling by thinking about other things instead. It’s tough, not to think about it, but I promise you, I was still enjoying it at this point.
I know what you’re thinking, this vagabond hobo must be out to get Anna, obviously. His crazy eye is following her progression through town like he knows something about her. He’s actually a benevolent wolf man! He saves Anna the first time she’s running through the forest trying to catch a deer. From a booby trap obviously! Didn’t you see that trip wire, girl? Still rolling with it, when the wolf man tells Anna to check out a mysterious cave that’s filled with animal bones we presume that it’s the road kill dumping site for the local DPW, obviously setting up a confrontation with the mayor over his poor ecological policies. Only, there are human skulls mixed in with the animal bones, and they have fangs. Not fangs, overly pronounced lateral incisors, duh. It’s been clinically proven that in certain societies where the drinking water has high levels of calcium deposits in the local soil, homo sapiens have been known to develop pronounced incisors through supermaturation.
It may sound like I’m thinking an awful lot, but I’m not. I’m actually awed by Anna’s complete and utter indifference to the knew world and understand why she’s freaked out when some of her teeth start falling out. I would be too. We’ve all had those anxiety dreams!
When foreboding comes to the forefront and the other sheriff proves to know Daddy and what Anna is, he and Daddy (surprise! he survived the gunshot to the head and up and about looking little less for the wear) get together a posse who all know about wildlings too and set out to kill Anna. This is all perfectly acceptable and I never wondered once where exactly this town was with posses, wolf men walking down the street like they own the joint, and caves filled with skulls (of any variety) that no one takes because they have zero value and zero cool factor.
Trust me, it’s better not to think about any of it. Enjoy wondering what Anna will eventually look like. Marvel at it when the reveal finally comes (it does). Laugh when Anna channels her inner Schwarzenneger in Predator. Or just revel in the really great acting from Dourif, Tyler, and the preternaturally mature Powley. If you’re impressed by her acting chops at 16 (Anna’s age), you might be less so when you learn that Powley was 23-years-old when they filmed for 23 days in late 2015. That, I actually do believe.