Concentric Ambiguities: Walter Ungerer's The Animal (1976)
The woods are lovely, dark and deep in Walter Ungerer’s The Animal (1976), a mystery story about a couple that inhabits an isolated cabin in the Vermont wilderness during winter. Ungerer uses nature’s ambiance to full advantage, portraying it as beautiful and scenic, but also as an elusive labyrinth: this tension been attraction and repulsion lends a subtle, unsettling quality to the film. The story is minimal, shifting between the daily activities of the couple, and two mysteries that preoccupy them. The first is a set of animal tracks that lead away from the house and to the woods, and the second is a pair of children who never speak and approach only the wife when she is alone. These children seem reminiscent of the twin sisters that reappear throughout Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), made four years later, but Ungerer doesn’t divulge whether they are real or just apparitions in the wife’s mind. Before either mystery is solved, the woman disappears while cross-country skiing. Search parties go out, days pass, but in an echo of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), the woman never reappears. The Animal can be seen as a series of concentric ambiguities: mysteries that begin but are never answered. Ungerer heads in the opposite path of the conventional mystery film, which posits a problem that is solved within ninety minutes; providing answers is part these films’ pleasures, and an even greater pleasure is figuring out the mystery on one’s own before the end of the movie. The Animal functions on an entirely different plane: we are left thinking about the mysteries, wondering how much they had to do with the story in the first place. Is the woman’s disappearance related to the animal tracks that so preoccupied the man, or was it merely a red herring that distracted us from detecting a deeper rift in their relationship? Ungerer demands that we not only question the nature of these mysteries and their importance to the story, but also their importance to the characters because it is the secrets that they keep—those not revealed—that continue to ruminate long after the movie has ended.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.