A sort of lyrical fable about a world and time with only the vaguest anchor in something resembling a coherent narrative, “The Wanting Mare” is less of a movie and more of an experience. Spanning multiple generations, and using characters like set dressing, the film by writer/director Nicholas Ashe Bateman looks great, feels profound, and manages to develop a genuine sense of place, even if the audience isn’t sure where it is or what it’s looking at.

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A title card at the top outlines the basic premise of this movie’s world, which sees the crowded, forever-sweltering city of Whithren trap its wild horses once a year so that they can be shipped south via boat, to Levithen. The citizens of Whithren all seem to be desperate to get one of the few tickets to Levithen, as it is, “a city in constant winter,” setting up the primary conflict of the film. That’s about as much structure as Bateman and the movie has stomach for, however, as the story hovers around several different people over a couple different decades as they struggle within the desperate confines of Whithren.

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At first this seems to be the story of Moira (Jordan Monaghan), a young woman living along the shoreline of Whithren, who is part of a lineage of ladies who all share the same dream of the world before…well, whatever this is. Moira spends her evenings plugging in old lights and listening to half-busted 8-track tapes in the ruins of the nearby city when she comes across a man, Lawrence (Josh Clark), all shot to hell. Moira tends to his wounds and the two begin a relationship, yet where Lawrence came from (or what his true motives are) remain shrouded in mystery.

From here the story jumps ahead what appears to be a couple of decades, and focuses on a different woman, Eirah (Yasamin Keshtkar), who is looking after a horse while developing a relationship with local ruffian, Hadeon (Edmond Cofie). This pair’s relationship is similar to Moira and Lawrence’s, yet different enough in the details to come off like a cover of an old song; for example, Moira desperately wanted to leave Whithren, while Eirah seems happy enough there. As the “The Wanting Mare” moves through the last of its sparse 85 minutes, it becomes clear that this is less of a capital-S “story,” and more of a subliminal experience.

What happens to Moira, Eirah, or Hadeon matters less than the world they live in, or even the taste and smell of it. Like some kind of Magic Eye painting, staring too hard at this movie will only cause dizziness and more confusion, which seems to be the point. The experience of these characters as they struggle within the sun baked cottages, darkened alleys, or blood-stained hallways, all within the context of this larger struggle to survive or escape from Whithren, is what “The Wanting Mare” is all about.  

This works wonderfully for the atmosphere of the film, yet does little to endear the audience to these characters, transient as they are. Although Lawrence seems mixed up in some kind of scam to steal a ticket early on, who he is in relation to Moira isn’t made clear when they meet, robbing their meet-cute of any excitement, anticipation, or investment. Worse still, their story is over before the movie offers any kind of look at the nearby city, which seems scary, sure, yet doesn’t explain why Moira can’t just relax in her gorgeous seaside home.

Although the opening text tells the audience that these tickets to Levithen are valuable, and Moira et al seem to really want one, the film never establishes what’s so bad about Whithren other than its heat. Are resources scarce? Is there some kind of plague in the area? Is it dangerous for people like Moira (and later, Eirah)? In its quest to establish a unique vibe for this world, the script abandons any attempt at world-building via a creation myth or origin story.

Bateman and his crew shot the majority of the film in a warehouse in New Jersey over the course of a couple years, utilizing a number of CGI shortcuts and clever lighting tricks to give the impression of a vast, dense landscape. It’s a remarkable achievement, as it never feels claustrophobic, or remotely contained. The film’s ability to establish mood, texture, and scope on a budget soundstage is indeed remarkable, yet with this in mind, “The Wanting Mare” can sometimes feel more like a sizzle reel and less like an actual film.

If Bateman and company wanted to prove that they can handle the delicate juggling of special effects and human drama for the next big Marvel project, they aced their test. As far as making a movie with relatable characters and an engaging story, though, “The Wanting Mare” only makes it about halfway to the finish line. [C+]