Netflix’s The Wasteland (2022) Erodes the Longer Its Left to the Elements of Its Narrative
Title: The Wasteland
First Non-Festival Release: January 6, 2022 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: David Casademunt
Writer: David Casademunt, Martí Lucas, Fran Menchhón
Runtime: 92 Minutes
Starring: Imma Cuesta, Roberto Álamo, Asier Flores
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Salvador (Roberto Álamo) and Lucía (Imma Cuesta) live far off in a deserted wasteland with their young son Diego (Asier Flores). They spend their days toiling away in the hot sun and spend their nights telling scary stories. Diego’s father pushes him to grow up and learn the necessary things to live in an unforgiving world while his mother does her best to protect his innocence for as long as possible. Their standoff is interrupted by the brief intrusion of a visitor who shortly dies by suicide. Salvador decides he must return his body to his family, leaving Lucía and Diego to the elements and a monster creeping in the distance.
Strong characters and brilliant creature design cannot fully save The Wasteland from its plodding pace and underwhelming scares.
A fine directorial debut, David Casademunt favors labored character development and atmospheric buildup over cheap scares. Its strong opening allows The Wasteland to establish itself as a film with potential to get seriously dark. No moments are wasted, as the film calls back to so many formative experiences in Diego’s life to deconstruct his journey into adulthood and coming-of-age. It does tend to drag significantly in the second act, but The Wasteland is still a solid effort in supernatural folk horror that attempts to capitalize on the latest trends in horror. The biggest issue the film faces is its inability to maintain the magic of its first act. Even with all the technical aspects executed quite decisively, it cannot make up for a film that doesn’t capture a consistent mood or a take hold of a narrative that veers off course too quickly.
The central metaphor for the film uses the monster to personify the absence of Salvador. This entity is responsible for Lucía and Diego’s growing isolation and frustration with one another. Furthermore, it pushes Lucía closer to a breaking point due to raising her son by herself in the middle of nowhere. These themes of grief, abandonment, and loss are meant to unnerve and terrify more than the monster itself. It’s not until they are able to confront this void in their life that they can make any progress as a family. The bleak, slow burn nature of the story allows this spiral to hit harder when it inevitably ends.
The buildup of Lucía and Diego’s relationship and its subsequent deterioration is both compelling and heartbreaking. Lucía cannot comprehend life without Salvador and Diego must learn to “be a man” like his father earnestly tried to prepare him to be before his journey. It’s interesting to reflect on Lucía’s determination to shield Diego from the world, as it only forces him to confront reality sooner when she can no longer do so.
Imma Cuesta hits all the right beats as a loving mother and fearful person besieged by visions of something terrifying and consuming. Her descent may not read as fully subtle, but she does what she needs to do to portray the situation. Asier Flores gives his all to the role and does a commendable job for a young actor. Moments of brilliance come and go as he challenges Lucía due to her waning mental faculties.
The filmmaking is quite dynamic. When outside, the protagonists are framed in the nothingness that envelops them, creating quite an uneasy viewing experience. Inside, the shots are much more claustrophobic and disorienting, mimicking the prolonged effects of isolation Lucía and Diego are subjected to out on the fringes of society. The film is saturated in mostly dull greys and browns. It’s meant to evoke a lifelessness that conveys the difficulties of living somewhere so secluded. It also makes other colors pop much more onscreen to create a dynamic effect. This works especially effectively when Lucía wears her old red dress or whenever blood is spilled. Bone chilling in design and petrifying when utilized onscreen, the effects team deserves major props for making the antagonist come to life.
There is not much that Casademunt does wrong in his inaugural film beyond failing to truly capture the energy necessary to take it to the next level. The breakdown of the family unit in the face of a crisis is not a new idea, and while some of the ideas land here, others drag the film down to depths it cannot recover from. Moments of solid atmosphere and brilliant flashes of inspired choices do shine through, which make The Wasteland more frustrating than exciting. The elements are there and unfortunately it does not assemble in a way to let the magic shine through the darkness in the desert.
Overall Score? 5.5/10