Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: THE WAIT (La espera), Visually Captivating Horror Western About Greed and Grief
Directed by F. Javier Gutierrez, the rural thriller stars Victor Clavijo, Ruth Diaz, Manuel Moron, and Luis Callejo.
Eladio (Víctor Clavijo) is recruited by the mysterious Don Francisco (the man literally evades being fully on screen for most of the time) for a groundskeeper's position at his estate.
Three years later, Eladio is still there, alongside his clearly unhappy wife (Ruth Díaz) and young son, whom he teaches about shooting and hunting. Financially strained and having been offered a bribe for implementing thirteen hunting stations instead of ten, Eladio caves to the pleadings of his wife and takes the shady deal.
The feeling of an impending doom is in the stifling countryside air, and soon the tragic chain of events claims Eladio’s son and then his wife. Then, it threatens to take away his job, the land he grew so accustomed to, and his sanity. But while Eladio’s mental state slips, he also starts wondering if there are other dark forces at play that have put him on the self-destruction path from the very start.
The Wait (La espera) marks the third feature film by Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez, following his memorable debut Before the Fall (2008) and Rings (2017). Here, after the foray into the large-scale in the previous film (as the opening scene in Rings had an entire plan overtaken by Samara’s curse), Gutiérrez comes back to the minimalistic ways of his first movie.
Also set in rural Southern Spain (but in the 70s) and colored in the familiar burnt yellow that evokes feelings of uncertainty and despair, The Wait switches between psychological drama, a bit of Western and a great deal of horror elements. Spanish cinema historically has a great tradition of horror with its magic realism, the brittle fringe between reality and illusion and exploration of death, memory, guilt and tragedies of the past – and Gutiérrez’ film fits right in. For the starting point, though, it also seems to be drawing from Greed (1924), as closeups of the hands grabbing money almost directly reference Erich von Stroheim’s classic.
And, just like in Greed, the devastation of the mind inevitably strains into the visible deterioration of the outer world. The space grows increasingly hostile, showing teeth and oozing blood – quite literally at times. Miguel Ángel Mora’s camera balances languid wide shots with excruciating closeups of faces, mundane minutiae and food (never before has the process of making eggs looked so ominous).
Playing Eladio, Víctor Clavijo (also featured in Gutiérrez’ debut) carries the emotional weight of the film as his character doesn’t convey much through words, prompting the direction and cinematography to constantly peer into his psyche. There is also a lot of physicality here to help navigate this descent into madness; the story does tend to constantly put the hero underground (or underwater) or strip him of the attributes of familiar life, including his clothes.
Appropriately titled, The Wait is definitely a slow burner, but once the story ventures into solidly surrealistic territory, the tension and the thrills pick up. The authors obviously have a lot of fun with practical effects, including a scene that outright verges on body horror.
That said, the more the movie closes on horror conventions, the more it starts to falter a bit. The ending is inevitable but not unexpected; moreover, it actually starts offering explanations in a surprisingly talkative way for a film that mostly relies on visuals. The tale of profound grief that pushes a person to the extreme in a desperate hope to transfer the guilt onto anyone and anything else, turns into something more formulaic.
It is still effective, though, as even the most ordinary images here tend to stick with you after the screening. That's the thing with magical realism: wild boars and snakes are somewaht okay but a man slowly unwrapping a sugar cube - that's true horror right there.
The film enjoyed its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest.