The explanatory text that opens “The Wanting Mare,” Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s ambitious, epoch-spanning directing debut, informs us that in the city of Whithren, citizens are desperate to escape by booking passage on the once-a-year transport ship that carries wild horses to the wintry promised land of Levithen. These words, a fantasist’s delight, only barely set the table for what’s to come, a visually enthralling but elliptical and withholding quasi post-apocalyptic drama about three generations of Whithren women who carry with them the burdensome memories of “the world before.”
At times, Bateman’s film feels overstuffed and underexplored, an inconclusive rhetorical argument between a director and his lofty intentions. Otherwise, the Baltimore native announces himself as a top-shelf world-builder-on-a-budget, a painter of luscious digital dreamscapes (and hellscapes).
Indeed, Bateman’s effects are the star here, casting such a vivid and immersive spell that they stoke a strong desire to explore Whithren, a decaying city that we mostly see from a distance (either that or adapt it into an open world videogame). Confronted with its stubbornly, purposely opaque storytelling, one’s reaction to “The Wanting Mare” depends on a willingness either to do the work of parsing a larger purpose from the breadcrumbs provided or to be satisfied with its beautifully rendered, enveloping environment. For better or worse (with the former being the overall takeaway), this is as close as we’ll get to late-period Terrence Malick directing a dystopian tone poem.
“You’re gonna have a dream. You’re gonna have it every night,” is the curse bestowed from a dying mother onto her newborn daughter Moira at the outset. It is the family curse, passed down through the generations, of remembering the magic that was lost “in the time before.” Years later, as a lonely and troubled adult, Moira (Jordan Monaghan) is haunted by this dream as she navigates Whithren’s desolate, rocky shores by day and sings along to an 8-track recording of her songstress mother by night.
These initial digital salvos on the dark, forbidding shore and in the empty building where Moira sleeps (always in a fetal position) are fairly breathtaking; more so considering Bateman shot most of the film in a warehouse in Paterson, New Jersey (with some exteriors shot in Nova Scotia), and relied on prodigious amounts of post-production effects work.
These visual effects are neither weightless nor fantastical. From the rocky, grey coastline, with its looming cliffs and ever-circling luminescent birds, to the detritus-strewn, abandoned buildings, Bateman has constructed a tactile environment and haunting evocation of a dead-end world.
But there is a way out of this sweat-stained husk of an existence: a coveted ticket on the enormous boat that ferries wild horses to Levithen once a year. Moira’s chance for escape comes when she tends to the bullet wound of handsome stranger Lawrence (Bateman) in the hopes of earning a ticket, maybe the one he just stole at gunpoint. Moira, however, never gets on the boat and is instead forced to raise the baby that Lawrence has found on the beach.
From here, “The Wanting Mare” expands into a cross-generational tale of stagnation, longing and remorse, a tantalizing idea that could have used more attention at the script stage. In tending to the 500-plus digital effects, Bateman (who has done effects work on Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” and David Lowery’s upcoming “The Green Knight”) gambles with our willingness to fill in the blanks of an enigmatic story overloaded with heavily lyrical dialogue that strains for meaning and lengthy silences seemingly freighted with unspoken sorrow. Even if one can admire a novice storyteller’s attempt at foundational myth-making in the mode of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” “The Wanting Mare” lacks the strong thematic undercurrents that give their works an inescapable pull toward a greater truth.
Jumping forward 34 years, the story shifts to Eirah, the baby found on the beach who is now an adult (Yasamin Keshtkar) in possession of a much sought-after wild horse. Much like her adopted mother, Eirah is fated to become involved with a man in possession of a ticket. “The Wanting Mare” comes into strong focus post-Eirah, during its affecting late stages, as two previous characters reappear as an elderly couple (Christine Kellogg-Darrin, very good, and Josh Clark). As they reconnect, “the world before” emerges as one without grief, regret or the tragic secrets we keep from each other. Moira and the women who came before and after her believe they’ll find salvation across the sea; but really, they’ll find it when they acknowledge that harboring memories of a more magical time is not a burden; it’s an invitation to make things better right where you are.
Bachman steers most of his actors, including himself, to serviceable performances. Behind the scenes, DP David A. Ross sells the loneliness and misery of Whithren life with plenty of dead-center, single shots and shaky camerawork, while Aaron Boudreaux’s tremulous score maintains the proper melancholy mood. Production designer Cassandra Louise Baker dots the practical landscape with decor that intriguingly suggests a vague, bygone era.
One of the film’s executive producers was director Shane Carruth. His name was removed after being accused of mental, emotional and physical abuse by an ex-girlfriend. While one can imagine the director of “Upstream Color” and “Primer” having an outsized influence on the impenetrable tendencies of “The Wanting Mare,” the film’s one unmistakable thrill is knowing its expansive world is the brainchild of one person, a first-time director who dropped out of college, never went to film school and worked for more than five years to fulfill a vision that was initially financed on Indiegogo. In this garish and corporatized age of IP, it seems the auteur is alive and, even if he’s occasionally dragged down by the weight of his own ambitions, doing pretty well.