Film geekdom, meet Nicholas Ashe Bateman.
This world is called Anmaere.
At the northernmost peak of one continent lies the city of Whithren, known for its sweltering heat and the wild horses that stampede along its coastline. Those horses are very valuable, each one a guaranteed payday for anyone who can capture one. See, once a year, these horses are shipped across the sea to a frozen continent known as Levithen, where they will provide invaluable assistance to the people living there. The ship that carries the horses to Levithen is gigantic, foreboding, a floating industrial nightmare. If there’s anything more valuable than a horse in Whithren, it’s a ticket on that ship: traveling to Levithen means leaving the oppressive heat and poverty of Whithren behind. Some people spend their entire lives trying to get their hands on one of those tickets. Some people kill for them.
First-time director Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s THE WANTING MARE is set almost entirely in and around the city of Whithren. It unfolds across several decades, telling the story of a shared dream which gets passed down from one woman to another across generations. These women long for a purpose, for love, for escape – everything you’d imagine someone living in a place like Whithren to long for. The city is flat, washed out by the beating sun overhead. At night it looks dangerous, its deep shadows hiding god-only-knows what sort of unpleasantness. Violence is not uncommon here. Like Earth, the world of Anmaere has guns, and gangs, and criminality. Desperate people doing desperate things. It’s certainly not our world – the strange things happening in THE WANTING MARE’s margins make that very clear – but it is a very believable one.
Indeed, the world-building of THE WANTING MARE is its most impressive feature. Bateman’s film only presents us with one tiny fraction of this imaginary place, but it’s all very tactile, its details adding up to a deeply convincing whole. And that’s notable, because almost nothing you see in THE WANTING MARE is actually there: its cast (entirely comprised of unknowns, but all of whom knock it out of the park) is real, the furniture is real, and in some cases very limited pieces of the sets are real (a porch, for instance), but virtually everything else is a digital effect. Believe it or not, Bateman filmed THE WANTING MARE largely within an empty,11,000 square foot storage unit – building, tearing down, and rebuilding various pieces of sets as needed and then spending five years (FIVE YEARS) completing the digital FX needed to bring the rest of Anmaere to life.
You’ve probably encountered movies like this before. Movies where the production story is so unbelievable, so bonkers that it tends to overshadow the rest of the film. In many such cases, that makes sense: consider a film like Randy Moore’s ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, shot in secret and on location at various Disney theme parks without anyone at the company ever being aware of the production. Even fans of Moore’s film (like me!) will concede that ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW’s real power lies in the astounding bit of guerrilla filmmaking that allowed it to be brought into the world, not in its surreal narrative. It is, for lack of a better term, a stunt film. A very impressive stunt film, to be sure, but a stunt film nonetheless. Such is not the case with THE WANTING MARE, which probably qualifies as a stunt film while also delivering a lyrical, mysterious, compelling story that will leave you dying to know more about the world in which it is set. The details of its production are astounding, but that’s not all it has going for it.
Executive produced by PRIMER and UPSTREAM COLOUR director Shane Carruth, THE WANTING MARE contains more than a dash of that filmmaker’s particular brand of abstract storytelling. Bateman’s film doesn’t hold your hand or beat you over the head with exposition about the world he’s welcomed you into; it communicates these details organically and whenever it feels like doing so. Long stretches go by without any dialogue, which is not to say that nothing happens during those stretches. Indeed, a great many things happen in THE WANTING MARE, it’s just that Bateman wants you to work out some of the connective tissue on your own. For people like me – who enjoy being challenged by a film, or required to do a little mental work in order to find the throughline between seemingly disparate narrative threads – THE WANTING MARE is straight-up catnip. I cannot wait to see this movie again, as I’m certain I missed many things the first time around.
As of this writing, THE WANTING MARE is the most impressive bit of filmmaking I’ve seen in 2020. It’s probably a bit too slow, a bit too withholding to be a crowd-pleaser, but there’s also zero indication here that Bateman has any interest in making crowd-pleasers. And to that I say: good. I don’t know who Nicholas Ashe Bateman is or where the hell he came from, but I’m enormously impressed by what he’s accomplished, and I’m very eager to see what other stories he has to tell in the world of Anmaere (which is apparently the plan, assuming that folks respond to this one). I hope they’re all as mysterious, otherworldly and unapologetically weird as this one.