The animal kingdom may not be fair, but it makes sense. There’s a logic to it, a system of order. Predators hunt prey: it is a world of desperation and aggression. Deep in the jungles of Peru, a young Afghanistan war veteran named Harry Turner recuses himself from public life to pursue a simpler way of being. Out in the middle of nowhere, five hours from the nearest major city, Turner rehabilitates lost, injured and orphaned animals, hoping, perhaps, to heal himself in the process.
“Wildcat,” by first-time directors Trevor Beck Frost (a National Geographic photojournalist) and his editing and producing partner Melissa Lesh, takes an intimate look at Turner and his work to rehab critters and creatures of every size. Turner, a lanky, tattooed Brit, is a charming, boyish man who went away to the Army when he was only 18. He was discharged with health issues, namely severe PTSD and depression. Out in the jungle, away from the noise of the world, he’s able to gain clarity and, for the first time in his life, to help others.
Turner works alongside scientist and researcher Samantha Zwicker, a PhD candidate based out of Seattle who has set up a center in the jungle. First one, and then another, young orphaned ocelot falls into their hands. Although the work they do with the first one takes a tragic turn, all their hopes turn on the second ocelot not only to survive a brutal jungle but also to make it on its own. This is young Keanu, very much the star of the show alongside Turner. Keanu is overeager and playful, striped and distinctive. It is easy for the viewer to fall in love with him, as Turner and Zwicker also have.
The metaphor at play in “Wildcat” — that both Turner and Keanu are animals, unruly and unpredictable, and need to rehabilitate their behavior before returning to their respective “natural” environments — is obvious, of course, but well-balanced by the film’s intimate and rugged look at the lives that both man and cat live away from society. Turner’s world is populated by caimans and giant tarantulas and monkeys. Though Zwicker is often called back to Seattle for school commitments, Turner has spent a long time away from home, unenthusiastic for his younger brother to see him in his post-war mental state, prone to rage and bouts of self-harm. At times “Wildcat” is a difficult watch, raw and unflinching.
Though the close-up look at animal rehabilitation is fascinating, it’s hard to see this world and look at what Lesh and Frost’s documentary is not showing: the indigenous and Peruvian workers whose efforts alongside Turner and Zwicker are instrumental in keeping their rehab center working. Though the film is peppered with scenes of Zwicker in conversation in Spanish with her team, Turner keeps to himself. It’s hard not to reflect upon a certain colonialist attitude on display here, especially from a filmmaker whose personal website boasts photos of him alongside members of native populations.
These Peruvian workers — scientists and veterinarians alike — are often unnamed, reduced to set dressing to the emotional journey of a young white man. It’s worth noting that Turner did not escape society on the whole; he just left a particularly white society for a less-white one, but he must endure what he suffers alongside other people, in the jungle or not.
In fact, “Wildcat” is often more moving and raw when Turner is with others than when he is with Keanu. His conversations between him and Zwicker simmer with tension — they are seemingly friends and coworkers and romantically involved sometimes — as their relationship comes to a head. Turner’s family comes to see him for the first time, reminding him of what good there is left behind in the world for him. There’s no missing the joy that sparks across his face when his little brother Jayden goes searching for cool bugs out in the forest. Turner thinks he is good only for animals, but he has a way with everyone he meets, so long as he can avoid getting in his own way.
Still, the work that Turner and Zwicker and their team accomplished down in Peru (and later in Ecuador) is nothing to shake a stick at, and “Wildcat” is meticulous about showing the type of labor and patience required for this type of work. These animals are not pets, nor are they treated as such, and they are taught and expected to fend for themselves.
When Turner feels joy, it is a profound victory, one often reflected in Keanu’s frenetic flipping and nipping. It is a behavioral therapy of its own kind, one that has the power to heal not just the patient but the physician too.
“Wildcat” premieres in US theaters Dec. 21 and on Prime Video Dec. 30.