Emilia has made her way from Buenos Aires to a small town on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Her aim is to find her brother Mateo, who has seemingly disappeared and stopped answering her many phone calls. She also hopes to reconnect to her splintered family following the death of her mother. Amid the foggy forest of this liminal space between nations, Emilia finds herself, but also experiences the locals’ growing fear. A beast is reportedly on the loose and brutally targeting people, typically women.
Argentine filmmaking Agustina San Martin makes her feature debut with To Kill the Beast, a languid drama that fits neatly into the flourishing genre of the tropical gothic. There have been some interesting cultural twists on the centuries’ old gothic tale as of late, thanks to novels like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and the short stories of Mariana Enríquez. For a genre widely defined by its glaring whiteness, gothic fiction offers an ever-relevant universality in its themes of fear, grief, and the underlying grotesque of seemingly polite society. Emilia’s new town wouldn’t seem out of place in a Shirley Jackson novella, all foggy skies and fear of an unseen evil. There’s a lot to differentiate this film from its genre elders too. The ramshackle homes are heat traps. Everyone is drenched in sweat. The token mysterious older woman, Emilia’s aunt Ines, wields a shotgun at passers-by and drinks while listening to what seems like a dance version of ‘Ave Maria.’ Even in this unfamiliar landscape, vast and apparently unending, the claustrophobia of gothic permeates every corner.
San Martin is definitely going for mood and poetic imagery over a conventional narrative. The pacing is languid, even for a movie that comes in at a tight 79 minutes. Long, uninterrupted shots gaze upon the town while indecipherable whispers of the locals suggest the growing paranoia over the mysterious beast. Nobody says much at all, but you still understand that this isn’t a great place to be. The sound design and cinematography in these scenes is wonderfully all-consuming, with some minor similarities to the work of another Argentinian filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel. Yet while Martel’s slow-burn stories are more apocalyptic in tone, San Martin aims for fairy tales.
Emilia’s family doesn’t seem too happy to see her. They refuse to answer her questions about her missing brother, Mateo, whose house is left abandoned and full of rotting fruit. Her aunt Ines often seems hostile to her presence, at one point declaring that she’s under no obligation to love someone just because they’re relatives. Even the local priest shoots daggers from his eyes when she asks an innocent question. One man catcalls her from his motorbike.
A local woman tells Emilia that the beast is supposedly the spirit of an angry man who can turn into different animals. It is the men of the town who try to organize nightly hunts or ritualistic blessings of the land. While we see glimpses of the beast as a calm bull who watches on from the forest, the most unnerving bumps in the night come from the cries of these gangs claiming to keep the women safe. Really, it’s the men who seem to be the most impacted by this near-mythic threat. For the women around Emilia, including her aunt and a lodger named Julieth, there’s a curious freedom in this town, separate from the conservative demands of city life. Inés commands respect over her home and business, even in the face of the hordes who clamor around her house every night ‘searching’ for the beast. Emilia finds she doesn’t need to pretend to be straight as obvious chemistry sparks between her and Julieth. Even her uptight older sister Helena finds a curious form of liberation in this wilderness.
San Martin lets the imagery speak for itself, which often makes for some stunning moments. An exceedingly long and totally uninterrupted shot towards the film’s climax allows the audience to sink wholly into the mist-tinged atmosphere of the tropical gothic. The emptiness of Mateo’s home as Emilia keeps leaving messages on his answering machine reveals the growing rot on an abandoned house. Her eroticism is given room to be, depicted with outright earnestness and a sense of joy at such a freeing moment. San Martin describes To Kill the Beast as something akin to an exorcism of emotion. For Emilia, it’s certainly an opportunity to free herself from some deep-rooted constraints.
Sometimes, however, the deliberate vagueness of this approach leaves one wanting for something a touch more tangible. The beast, who we hardly see and are never shown as the monster that he is described as, is thematically ambiguous in a way that certainly hints at its gothic roots. Is he a representation of toxic male rage and power? Is he secretly living among the men of the town? It’s open to interpretation, which leaves some fascinating options on the table but muddies the waters at the same time. I respect the director for not wanting to deliver a didactic message in lieu of telling a story but those ideas of female autonomy and finding freedom from patriarchal smothering scream out for breathing space.
To Kill the Beast is at its best when it invites you, the viewer, to let it wash over your mind, a sensual experience of familiar genre trappings with one foot firmly in the future. It certainly hints at a bright future for San Martin, a filmmaker with vision and the kind of potential that will undoubtedly have some Hollywood bigwigs eager to misuse her talents. The tropical gothic feels like the future of the genre, and I for one cannot wait to see it prosper on the big screen.
To Kill the Beast was screened virtually as part of the 2021 TIFF film festival.