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I've seen enough bad Malick knockoffs to know that Stolevski's 'You Won’t Be Alone' is a good one

Noomi Rapace in 'You Won't Be Alone'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Branko Starcevic
Noomi Rapace in 'You Won't Be Alone'

The Macedonian folk horror film You Won’t Be Alone opens some time long ago, with a woman, a baby, and a witch. The witch is the Old Maid Maria, also known as the Wolf-Eateress, a horrid-looking creature who appears to have been burned over her entire body. The woman owes the witch newborn blood, but she begs the Old Maid Maria to allow her to keep the baby until the child is 16, at which point she will give her to the witch and allow the girl to be turned into a witch herself. The witch agrees, but not without first mutilating the infant's mouth, decreeing that the child cannot go unmarked. The mother then takes the baby girl to a remote cave where she keeps her for the next 16 years, thinking the witch will never find her and she won't have to give her away.

But the Wolf-Eateress does, of course, find the girl, who's been in that cave with no contact with the outside world for her entire life, other than her mother's visits, which often seem to consist only of bringing her food. The girl has no knowledge at all of anything outside the cave, but the witch takes her and begins to teach her about surviving as a witch, teaching her that animals are there for their blood, not to play with, and that humans will gut you as soon as look at you. The witch is cruel, and has no use for the girl's curiosity about her new world, and certainly not for compassion, and so she abandons the girl to go out on her own—but not before the girl learns she can shapeshift by tearing out the heart and intestines of other living things and placing them in her own body, taking on their form.

This sounds horrific, and it is, but it’s also important to know about the debt this movie owes to the great director Terrence Malick, and the contemplative beauty that bestows on it. It’s unmistakable that this film’s director, Goran Stolevski, is going for outright stylistic theft here, but believe me, I've watched enough bad Malick knockoffs to know a good Malick knockoff when I see it.

The girl gravitates toward the people who inhabit small villages in the countryside, and she moves from place to place taking on the form of different villagers. This is not a smooth process— she can't talk because of her mutilated mouth, and she moves and interacts strangely, with her herky-jerky walk and constant staring at things as if she's never seen them before in her life, which she hasn't. Though in every case the other villagers seem to excuse away this incredibly odd behavior. The first woman she inhabits had been beaten often enough by her husband that the other people regard her trauma as the reason for her lack of speech and her unusual movements, she takes the place of a young girl who'd fallen and hit her head on some rocks, and so on. Sometimes she's a man, sometimes a woman, once a dog, and each time she learns more about the world and its strangeness, wonder, and cruelty.

We hear the girl's thoughts entirely through voiceover, a hallmark of Terrence Malick's work, although Stolevski is not only imitating— he makes this an organic part of the movie, as the girl cannot speak, and more than that, we see how her ability with language develops throughout the film. When we begin, those voiceovers consist of fragments of words and syntax that's so odd we can't always make out what she's actually thinking. It’s the language of someone who's only heard a few words in her life and has yet to develop that capacity, or even the concepts that might underlie it. As we go on, her language becomes somewhat more sophisticated, and she absorbs the world into that language as she learns more about it.

Visually, this is also very much a Malick approximation, with the floating and swirling camera and the action of one shot that's not necessarily related to the action of the next. It is often gorgeous, most especially in depicting the Macedonian hills and mountains and countryside, sometimes lit in the golden glow of dusk, sometimes obscured by heavy mists and fogs. One thing Malick does that's so valuable, that Stolevski also does quite well with this film, is that he allows you the space and time to wander around in his movies, to bring yourself to them as much as he's bringing them to you. Both directors give you time to reflect, sometimes not even to notice what's happening on the screen. I found multiple times I wasn't even reading the subtitles in this movie because I was lost in the images and my own thoughts, and this was perfectly fine. It allows you to engage with the film in a different way— it becomes a dialogue, with the viewer contributing themselves to the experience, with the understanding that we can return from that wandering when we're ready.

You Won’t Be Alone is naturally not as fully poetic and transcendent as the films of Terrence Malick, but it retains that ethereal, elevated quality and places it somewhere we don't expect. And besides, Malick is unlikely ever to try his hand at Macedonian folk horror, so if that’s what you want, this is as close as you’re going to get.

You Won’t Be Alone is on VOD.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.