By Katherine Connell
The moon floats against a sky so overcast that it’s impossible to determine whether the hour is night or day—a suitably disorienting opener for Agustina San Martín’s surreal To Kill the Beast. In an area surrounded by rainforest bordering Brazil and Argentina, 17-year-old Emilia (Tamara Rocca) shows up at a hostel owned by her aunt, Inès (Ana Brun), looking for work. Beneath Emilia’s arrival is a more urgent motivation: to make contact with her brother Mateo, estranged from the family after a childhood incident. As she interacts with the area’s residents, Emilia hears snippets of an unsettling story about a shapeshifting beast in the jungle. The local church (a group Mateo is associated with) takes up arms against it, searching the forest throughout the night for signs of evil.
The film’s slow-spinning carousel of scenes splice together a fragmented narrative that drifts toward increasing temporal strangeness. First, there’s no cell service; then, the clocks and compasses go haywire. San Martín’s ethereal imagery, drawing from the conventions of weird fiction, folk horror, and fairy tales, gestures toward the supernatural without literally showing it, crafting an eerie tone that never quite lifts. (Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream would make for an interesting point of comparison.)To Kill the Beast’s avoidance of didactic symbolism is commendable. Still, leaning too heavily on atmosphere at the expense of narrative can leave an audience unmoored, even if the goal here is to evoke the liminality of coming-of-age in all its kaleidoscopic intensity. There’s something to be said for staying and swaying in that psychedelic space—there’s also satisfaction to be found in unravelling a tangled narrative, even just a bit.