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No one said a film has to give you everything you want. It’s rare, however, that one offers everything you don’t. You Won’t Be Alone touches almost every third rail of commercial cinema: babies in peril, rape, animal cruelty, disembowlings. If those things make you squeamish—in other words, if you are a normal human being—the film by Macedonian writer-director Goran Stolevski will be a difficult watch, but it’s also a fascinating one for how it takes a novel approach to its genre. In its long, hard search for a speck of humanity in a barbaric world, it digs beneath the conventions of horror and finds a new myth.
The film revolves around a shape-shifting Wolf-Eateress, Maria (Anamaria Marinca), whose legend haunts the rural Macedonian countryside in the 19th century. After living a solitary existence for centuries—killing people and inhabiting their bodies limits one’s social circle considerably—she finally takes a daughter, Nevena (Sara Klimoska), a mute teenager raised in isolation and similarly ill-mannered. It’s a strained relationship from the jump; years of evildoing doesn’t prepare one for the rigors of motherhood, and quickly, the young girl strikes out on her own, determined to experience life among the humans. Her witch-mother is never far behind.
Having inherited her adopted mother’s transformative abilities, Nevena samples every life she can: a mother (Noomi Rapace) with an infant, a brute who attempts to sexually assault her (Carloto Cotta), a wholesome child, even a dog. She takes their lives, but even in her new form, violence still defines her days. As Nevena makes her way from town to town as different people, she inevitably suffers the same result: the suspicions of the townspeople, who look at her form and see a friend or relative acting strangely, having lost the ability to speak and knowing nothing of the world they knew the day before. They react with fear and lash out with violence, an understandable reaction in a world defined by folklore. Somehow we never blame them. The film’s empathy is comprehensive and persuasive; even the witch herself gets a backstory that justifies her merciless existence.
It’s a challenging viewing experience, absent of easy entry and almost entirely devoid of dramatic tension. Still, it’s hard not to admire the filmmaker’s boldness. For his first feature, Stolevski has made a film quite unlike any other, but the approach has its drawbacks. You Won’t Be Alone is gruesome to a fault. Even though most of the actual kills take place just offscreen, it revels in its gore and the violence of human nature, sparing the viewer nothing. It tests the limits of its audience like extreme horror often does, but there are no actual scares here. No tension and release, just two hours of being frightfully unsettled. It’s unpleasant and often unengaging, but undeniably artful.
Even where other filmmakers would offer viewers respite, Stolevski refuses. Its lyrical tone and dreamily poetic voice-over reveal a clear Malickian influence—a comparison to Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line would not be out of place—but those films, while still conveying profound human pain, rest on their aesthetic beauty, and the juxtaposition is the point. Stolevski’s eye looks for beauty in the natural world, too, but finds frightfully little. There’s so much evil to see, both of the human and Wolf-Eateress variety, and so little time.
You Won’t Be Alone is in theaters on April 1.