Terror. Dread. Hopelessness.
Terror. Dread. Hopelessness. These are all awful feelings amplified when the person experiencing them is boxed in. Psychology majors will mull over these feelings as they study trauma, seeing what the victim’s body chooses as a response: fight, flight, freeze. That is the premise of Wildcat. Here our hero is literally put into a corner, chained to a bed in a terrorist safehouse in Mosul, Iraq. I was unsure of what to expect of this film. The trailer looked enticing enough. Any underdog fighting in both a literal and metaphorical way tends to make for a powerful story. I was hopeful. After the trailer, I skimmed the film’s page over on IMDb where the early reviews told a less flattering story. I wondered if maybe my instincts were off. They weren’t. I’m not sure what movie those other reviewers watched, but the Wildcat I saw was far from dull. In fact, it was rather powerful.
The man behind the lens is Jonathan W. Stokes. Also serving as the film’s writer, Stokes challenges himself here. That challenge is telling a gripping narrative within the confines of one room. I’m quite familiar with necessity being the mother of invention; Stokes is undoubtedly making the most with his limited resources. The cast is small, the set is smaller. What isn’t small are the performances and the agency that Stokes gives his characters. There is torture in this film, and the visual storytelling Stokes uses to convey said torture throughout is instinctual. He shoots scenes filled with violence and stress with the care and grace of a romance film.
Wildcat is a claustrophobic film about a captured journalist imprisoned somewhere in Mosul, Iraq. Her name is Khadija Young (Georgina Campbell) - or just Kat. She tries desperately to appeal to her captors via citing the Geneva Convention and begging. This doesn’t work. Instead they systematically ply off her fingernails, give her little to no scraps to eat (which are covered in maggots) and repeatedly question her for intelligence. Her occasional cellmate is a wounded Marine named Luke (Luke Bernard). He is suffering from a gunshot wound to the belly and is constantly being dragged in and out of Khadja’s cell for his own torture appointments held elsewhere. When he is left in her room, Luke and Khadja both plot and scheme for reduced torture and swift escape.
The pair were captured after their convoy was attacked. Their captors are led by a terrorist cell leader named Abu Khalid (Mido Hamada). He talks softly and almost sweetly to Khadja, attempting to extract information with a coyish glow. Even when he pinches her recently stripped thumbnail, he does so almost politely and respectfully. The first ten minutes of Wildcat made me sit up and lock into the scene in ways I haven’t been compelled to do so since the opening minutes of Inglorious Basterds. Hear me out.
The courage of the plot to take place almost entirely in a vacuum is bold, no matter the budget. I’m reminded of the classic Rope or undervalued Buried, where the set is a character in itself. The first scene carries a sense of cranking tension that you aren’t sure what to make of at first. I mentioned Inglorious Basterds as a frame of reference and I will die on this hill. Maybe a more subtle inspiration is the brief scene in Captain America: Civil War where the Hydra soldier is being interrogated by Zemo ( “Mission Report: December 16th, 1991”). But these examples are important. There is an intimacy and tone brought in that sets the stakes and motivation of our characters. And it is magical. Like Hans Landa from Basterds, Abu Khalid also knows more than he lets on. It is a mesmerizing power play.
The spaces between the questioning and maiming are filled with dialogue explaining more backstory and motivation for Khadja. We understand how she wound up in her current predicament; which is to say her tenuous situation is a byproduct of her uphill professional battle. I don’t want to reveal too much more about Khadja’s character, as that journey is better left for a first-time viewer. The ending of the film is only slightly satisfactory though. I felt there was a moment where the wheels were going to come off in a good way. I wish there was a risker attempt made here. I called the ending. While it wasn’t a bad ending, it was just a tad hokey. I wanted a thematic uppercut to the chin and I got a love tap to the cheek.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
If this film gets recognition for anything, it should be for the incredible chops from its two leads (Campbell and Hamada). I wasn’t kidding about the first ten minutes being full of heart and gravity. The dialogue is technical and purposeful. It comes off as genuine without being melodramatic. Having deployed to Iraq twice myself, a lot of the military acronyms, verbiage and slang was dialed in just enough for me to sound genuine without being pretentious. Some people may be put off by the low mix of dialogue audio where it can be hard to hear the characters. A critique that Tenet also suffered from. I actually felt that this added to the mood and atmosphere of the characters’ circumstances. It felt real. This film was far from perfectly written, but the actors put on a clinic in effective stress, pain and impatience.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
This film is simple in its setup and execution. However, the brief shots we see of Khadja’s ripped fingernails are horrifying. And the moulage for Luke’s wound as it begins to fester as he develops an infection sells itself. The real talent for make-up is the gradual drain and hopelessness painted on the faces of our prisoners.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
There are themes of culture and geography here brought to life by the blasts from the mosques during the hours of prayer. There is no traditional score, but the almost haunting chanting prayers kept me grounded in the reality that these prisoners are in a box that their rescuers have yet to find. The fact that the prayers are so beautiful to listen to makes it that much more exhilarating.
For a film that is small in terms of cast and location, Wildcat is not small in scope. I would admit that the plot trope of terrorists in Iraq can seem about a decade too late. But looking closer, it isn’t really about that plot device at all. The terrorist-taking-prisoners aspect is a macguffin. What Wildcat is truly about is identity, trauma and perseverance.
“If you act like a victim, people will victimize you.”
I’m afraid two things are going to happen with Wildcat. It will go largely overlooked for one, and two that reality will be because of the early harsh reviews it's receiving. I’m not sure how I landed in the minority here, but I found Wildcat to be a gripping and tense study of resilience, endurance and resolve. It is directed smartly and carried by the suffocating pressure of its miniscule set and gut-punching performances.
WILDCAT is in select theaters April 23rd and On Digital and On Demand April 27th