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‘You Won’t Be Alone’ Film Review: Ambitious Horror Tale Collapses into Distracting Excess

Noomi Rapace’s turn as a 19th century Macedonian shape-shifter can’t overcome first-time director Goran Stolevski’s overblown style

This review of “You Won’t Be Alone” was first published on Jan. 22 after its premiere at Sundance.

The dismal arthouse horror-drama “You Won’t Be Alone” will surely test the patience of viewers who expect a straightforward, character-driven, or even generic period chiller. Set in 19th century Macedonia, writer-director Goran Stolevski’s debut feature presents a disorienting narrative about Nevena (mostly played by Noomi Rapace), a shape-shifting teenage witch who’s kidnapped and then haunted by the malicious “wolf-eateress” conjurer Maria (Anamaria Marinca, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”).

The movie’s heavy-handed and often distracting impressionistic style — lots of too-tight extreme close-ups, wobbly hand-held camerawork, whispery stream-of-conscious voiceover narration, and over-edited montages — will understandably frustrate some viewers and draw comparisons to recent dramas directed by Terrence Malick (“Knight of Cups,” “The Tree of Life”) as well as Robert Eggers’ “elevated horror” movies “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse.”

Stolevski’s pretentious and mindlessly alienating style also smothers his ensemble cast’s performances and his crew’s diligent contributions, especially work by production designer Bethany Ryan, costume designer Sladjana Perić-Santrač, sound designer Emma Bortignon, and their respective teams.

Most of “You Won’t Be Alone” concerns Nevena (first played by Petra Ćirić, then Sara Klimoska) and her vain attempts at understanding basic human experiences after Yelena’s biological mother Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski) forces her to spend her childhood hiding from the predatory Maria. Yelena and the others usually explain their motives through elliptical, fragmented dialogue and voiceover narration, so it’s often hard to tell why they do what they do unless it’s heavily implied through distracting close-ups and babbling commentary.

Basically, Nevena’s story begins after Maria abducts and adopts her. Nevena then learns how to imitate Maria in gutting, consuming, and then transforming into the bodies of her victims, most of whom are women. Maria soon loses interest in Nevena and lets her wander around murdering and replacing various Macedonian peasants; Maria also occasionally pops up because she clearly sees something in Nevena, though what, exactly, often remains obscure.

Having lived an extremely sheltered life, Nevena processes a range of new emotions and experiences through baby talk–style observations, like “sometimes my wish is…come back whisper-mama” [sic] and “Me, am I devils?” Most of “You Won’t Be Alone” seems to be presented from her subjective point of view, though several scenes defy that simple framework since director of photography Matthew Chuang’s constantly shifting perspective and over-active camera movements often seem to represent a vague secondary presence. (Perhaps Maria?) Violent actions sometimes happen off-screen, and Chuang’s camera sometimes moves on action in sudden, unexpected ways.

Stolevski generally fixates on scenes of brutal violence and/or pseudo-earthy intimacy, presumably to make us share Nevena’s culture shock and to feel what life was like in this time and place. After Nevena accidentally kills Bosilka (Rapace), she consumes some of her bloody organs and then briefly tries to pass as Bosilka. As Bosilka, Nevena imitates the gestures and habits of a community of women, all of whom pity Bosilka since they all assume she’s been struck mute by her abusive unnamed husband (Genc Jakupi). As Bosilka, Nevena smiles and laughs with a little too much abandon when she compares the bruises on her neck with Stamena (Arta Dobroshi), who also has bruises on her inner arm.

Eventually, Nevena abandons Bosilka’s body and, after a brief transformation into a dog, chooses to kill and take the appearance of Boris (Carloto Cotta, “Diamantino”), just to see what sex and power are like for men. A characteristically overheated scene where Cotta, as Yelena, orgasms forcefully inspires only unintended groans since it’s presented in a very extreme close-up.

Stolevski’s consideration of Nevena’s emotional journey often appears shallow, given how fast he moves from moment to moment. Rapace’s expressive performance may suit her character, but still looks campy given how much of the movie’s quick-cut montage style of drama reduces her character to the actress’ disjointed body language. Instead of allowing Nevena/Bosilka’s actions and behavior to articulate coherent thoughts or feelings about her character, we’re often left with a jumble of images and concepts that suggest many ideas without fully articulating any.

By presenting so many types of experiences through jarringly fast episodes, Stolevski fosters a trite sort of continuity between the sexual and psychological violence that Nevena experiences and the overwhelming and often forbidding natural beauty that surrounds her. That’s life in all its shocking, assaultive variety, and nobody can explain it to Yelena for her. She has to go through it by herself while Maria watches and schemes around her.

Your mileage may vary, but the experience of watching “You Won’t Be Alone” can often feel punishing to an absurd extreme. Boliska says emotionally unrevealing things like, “The man, the eyewater he wants. From the woman,” and many scenes race by without much consideration or illuminating emotions beyond what’s indicated through over-cut, barely processed images. By strong-arming viewers into assuming a “you are here”–type of proximity with Nevena, Stolevski winds up saying more about how little he trusts his cast and crew than he does about his characters.

“You Won’t Be Alone” may not be a dumb or unimaginative exercise in style, but it also rarely encourages viewers to engage meaningfully with whatever’s on-screen.

“You Won’t Be Alone” opens in US theaters April 1.

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