The Wanting Mare is a genuine CGI novelty, a delicate, low-key work of great sensitivity.
More often than not, when one thinks of special effects extravaganzas, the mind wanders first to the Marvel/DC superhero industrial complex, or perhaps to something like Robert Zemeckis’ lost decade of mo-cap experiments. Further down the totem pole might be Robert Rodriguez’s DIY oddities, most of them made in his home studio and, whether geared towards children or the grindhouse, resolutely juvenile in both conception and execution. It’s rarer still to see a bona fide art film that exists almost entirely as a green-screened construct. In more ways than one, The Wandering Mare is an outlier; it’s a small, intimate, nearly abstract paean to woozy romanticism that’s almost entirely comprised of artificial environments rendered in 1s and 0s. Prioritizing mood and ambiance over character and story, The Wanting Mare is bound to rub some the wrong way, but there’s an aching sincerity here that is undeniably appealing if you can get on its wavelength. In creating an alternate universe seemingly populated by only half a dozen people, complete with its own mythology and criminal underworld, writer/director Nicholas Ashe Bateman somehow splits the difference between the languid mysticism of Terrence Malick by way of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls and the arch stylization of Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, where l’amour fou is announced through cryptic gestures and furtive glances.
An opening scrawl of text sets the scene, as the (virtual) camera flies through a dark, cloudy sky. There are two cities, the “hot” Withren and the “cold” Levithen. Every year, wild horses are transported via boat from Withren to Levithen, with a few spaces left over for human passengers longing to flee the confines of one city for the other. But tickets are scarce, and an entire black market has sprung up around obtaining and then selling them. Divvied up into three sections of variable length, plus a brief prologue, the film follows three generations of women. The prologue of a woman giving birth segues into the film’s first segment, as we follow Moira (Jordan Monaghan) living a solitary life in some rural cabin. She ventures into a largely deserted city to sing and dance in an abandoned warehouse. These scenes are the most obviously indebted to an overly-familiar indie sensibility; everything is lit with dangling fluorescent bulbs and strings of Christmas lights, and Moira, of course, uses an old 8-track player to play her music. She soon meets Lawrence (played as a young man by the director himself), wounded from a gunfight while attempting to steal tickets to the cargo ship. They begin a tentative romance that blossoms into a passionate affair. Still desperate to acquire passage away from Withren, Lawrence stumbles across a baby abandoned on the shoreline (the first of several unexplained, almost surreal occurrences). He leaves the child with Moira and disappears. The second chapter follows that child, Eirah (Yasamin Keshtar), now a grown woman, and keeper of a mare, who finds herself involved with some nefarious underworld types. The third chapter reunites Moira and Lawrence, now decades older and played by different actors (Christine Kellogg Darrin and Josh Clark, respectively) as they reunite to mourn a mutual loss and reminisce about the before times.
The plotting here is thin, just a skeleton to hang various ideas and scenarios on, but Bateman has realized a fully immersive world to envelop these strange characters. Shot largely with handheld cameras, with an occasional wide shot that fully captures landscapes and urban sprawl, there’s an intimacy on display that feels fragile and, most importantly, authentic. Jump cuts condense what seems like hundreds of hours of footage into brief montages that suggest an entire lived experience. Bateman uses CGI in a painterly manner, less interested in creating fantastical worlds or creatures than in instead rendering the familiar unfamiliar. The night sky becomes a never-ending sea of black, while amber-hued fields recess into infinity. The film feels coated in a fine sheen of sweat in the warmer climate of Withren, while the cold Levithen is all blue-gray and shrouded in flurries of snow. There’s a sense of longing and regret, and Bateman gets at both that particularly youthful feeling of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and the invariable resignation that comes with old age. At heart, The Wanting Mare is about a yearning for freedom, a point Bateman hammers home a little too obviously, but there are so many grace notes here that a little heavy-handedness can be forgiven. It’s a bold debut for Bateman, who proves to be not only a gifted technician within this DIY sensibility — he and a small team labored over the film’s computer effects for almost 5 years — but also the possessor of a rare sensitivity. Let’s hope he doesn’t get swallowed up into the corporate intellectual property maw.