Review by William J. Hammon, Founder, ActuallyPaid.com
There really is nothing like a good fairy tale, is there? The magic, the wonder, the romance, and the clever morals tucked within the fantasy are the first deep literary dives that many of us take in our formative years. But the thing is, when we’re children, hearing these stories for the first time, we’re getting a REALLY sanitized version of events, polished over centuries for younger sensibilities. For example, Disney owes a great deal of its success to its ability to further that process, spinning these yarns into kid-friendly interpretations that end up becoming the default for a lot of people.
But in reality, a good chunk of these stories are dark as all get out. In some versions of Sleeping Beauty, she’s impregnated in her slumber, awoken only by the in utero movements of her unborn twins. In the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, the evil queen is executed by having to dance in hot iron shoes until death. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid, she flat out kills herself when the prince chooses someone else. There are a TON of these downer, sometimes outright grotesque story beats in the tales we all know and love, but rarely is that sinister angle portrayed on film.
This more wicked side is finally given its proper due with Squeal, a joint effort of Latvia and Belgium that premiered at Fantastic Fest last year as Samuel’s Travels. It’s a twisted and delightfully dangerous modern fairy tale that nonetheless retains the whimsy needed to make sure the whole affair doesn’t come off bleak. What initially looks like an ironic blend of fantasy and horror ends up landing as one of the most brutally honest fables in recent memory.
Accompanied by an upscale, Renaissance-style score by Justine Bourgeus and gentle, storybook narration by Uldis Verners Brūns, writer-director Aik Karapetian is able to create an environment in present-day rural Latvia that feels otherworldly while still remaining grounded enough to be believable. With only a name and an old photograph to go by, a man named Sam (Belgian actor Kevin Janssens) has arrived in the area searching for the father he never knew. He doesn’t speak or understand the local language, and has no luck as he essentially wanders the countryside and wooded areas, though he does at least have a rental car and a GPS to establish that the story takes place in the here and now, hinting that he’s not as lost as he could be.
During his aimless journey, Sam happens across a piglet (rarely do I note animal actors, but the fact that the three different pigs who played this part are named after the Latvian equivalent of Harry, Ron, and Hermione made me chuckle) who had just escaped from a farm. Sam picks him up and by happenstance meets its owner, a young woman named Kirke (Laura Silina), who speaks enough English so that Sam can hopefully make some headway. Invited to stay for the night, Sam thinks things are finally looking up, until he’s captured by Kirke’s father Gustavs (Aigars Vilims) and a young neighbor boy named Jancuks (Normunds Griestins), chained up in the pig sty, and turned into a figurative beast of burden.
What follows is an incredible study in Stockholm Syndrome, as Sam’s imprisonment and servitude develops into a sense of honor, empathy, and even affection. He genuinely struggles with his need for freedom against his desire to be “good” for Kirke. He constantly fights the idea of being property, especially given the cavalier nature with which the pigs on the farm are treated. But at the same time, there’s an aura about his bondage that lends itself to the idea that this is where he’s meant to be. If you take the time to go down the proverbial rabbit hole on some of the classics, you’ll find many similar themes. Janssens gives a wonderfully rough and raw performance that truly resonates on this front, not the least of which is because he’s naked for a solid 20 minutes of the film’s rather brisk runtime.
Still, what really sells this are the fantasy elements that turn this into the most fractured of fairy tales. Without the narration and music, this is just a messed up story about abduction and slavery that borders on torture porn. But when these genius touches are added, the film takes on whole new dimensions. This extends even further, as Sam witnesses things that can easily be interpreted as magic or madness depending on the point of view. Jancuks himself is reduced to a human dog in ways that are just deliciously insane by his adoptive fathers, played by Juris Bartkevics and Guntis Pilsums. And true to the actual form of Andersen and the Grimms, reflections on the moral, ethics, and purpose of all that unfolds are expertly subverted and undercut in ways that most of us never get to experience with these kinds of stories. It’s truly refreshing in its insanity.
There’s a lot to be said for the sheer ambition and weirdness of Squeal, much of which pays massive dividends from where I sit. Whatever you might be expecting when you see this film, the reality – and the fantasy – will lay it to waste, and you’ll thank all involved for doing so.
Squeal premieres in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will be available on VOD on August 19th. Watch the trailer here and check your local listings for showtimes.