Nick Vass’s review published on Letterboxd:
So here's another metaphoric spin on a well-worn genre at this year's Spanish film festival.
Last week, there was Marshland, a procedural cop thriller about the mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls. It was set against the backdrop of Franco's dictatorship and how transitions were being made to a modern democracy. And now, with Shrew's Nest, a high-polished horror in the 1950's, it uses oppressive relationships to tell a ghastly tale about psychosis and a madwoman's agoraphobia.
Now let's establish the certainties. They are both deeply resonant to the painful ties of a nation's violent history. They are both about an impotent victim who couldn't survive in the corruptible world. They are both, for me, the welcoming saviour to a rather prevalent classification in cinema.
Montse (Macarena Gómez, from 2013's hit Witching & Bitching) and her unnamed younger sister (Nadia de Santiago) are seamstresses with a brutal past. For the purposes of this review, we'll call her La Niña. She is a relatively normal 18 year-old, but Montse, is on the fringes of breaking point as a deeply religious neurotic who abuses her sister. Montse is unable to leave her cloistered apartment and only keeps herself under control via a serious addiction to morphine. This also causes her to experience a number of hallucinate visits from her sinister dead father Padre (Luis Tosar).
When their upstairs neighbour Carlos (Hugo Silva) falls down the stairs and breaks his leg, Montse takes it upon herself to 'nurse' him back to health. She refuses to let him leave or have a genuine doctor to see his injuries. But then, despite Montse’s demented efforts to keep him a secret, La Niña discovers Carlos locked in the room, and the two develop a secret attraction that will endanger any remnant of sanity that ever existed in the coop.
What unfolds is a more melancholic example of Dogtooth and the most distinct ode to Misery. To see the teachings of social skills being warped on a child is a ~very~ empathetic strand in this film. But to see a desperate latching for a new bed-ridden 'resident' is taken to such helpless, perturbed and loony lengths. It gives Shrew's Nest a considerable pulse.
Childhood memories are a haunting catalyst as well. Even if it's mostly centered in a present timeframe. From the opening scene, there is a looming atmosphere of dread that overwhelms the sisters' lives. Poetic recitations, fable-like innocence and close kinship are almost poisonously ironic for what will come.
"All children like bedtime stories. Terrifying tales. Horrific stories about evil people preying on others. I was the exception."
Now that's an opener.
At first, the bond of twisted love and violence that connects the two sisters is unsettling. Montse abuses La Niña's face with a stick and is always making threats about communicating to other men. As if it's sinful and a shame to her deceased parents. It's at this point where the dominant female took me aback through her unpredictable mindset, and the more submissive, was a fresh-faced innocent who had been tarnished by her daily fears.
The central performance of Macarena Gómez just may be its crux. She is extraordinary as the homebound psychotic Mentse. Bearing sunken eyes, unsettling facial twitches, an addiction to morphine, and most frightening, her religious obsession that makes Piper Laurie in Carrie seem like a tamer matriarch! She is, simply put, insane.
I was able to both sympathize and pity Montse as a result of her abusive past. In many ways. It definitely brings that aspect to the forefront in a few chilling flashbacks. Padre uses her as a sexual scapegoat to remind him of his late wife. And to her, it's a psychological factor that is abode in torment every single day. He appears out of nowhere and she's unable to find a grip on reality.
This is the most impressive work I have seen from a female in a horror film since Essie Davis in The Babadook. That's because deep-rooted depression and mental illness can be a strong incentive to explore this genre. If done by a commendable actress that is.
And naturally, to have the entire film be embedded in this apartment is an effective way to understand her headspace. The claustrophobia is there. I am sharing her surroundings. Then, to have all of this enhanced by decorum—a lavish mise en scène that is presented in rigid, formalist static shots is both eerily beautified and full of artificial opulence.
Hugo Silva is also a welcoming buffer to the constricting mold of the sisters' apartment. He presents Carlos as calm, thankful, likeable and appreciative of being in their care. It's easy to understand why they've become so drawn to him. The cat-and-mouse game is also intriguing as each sister feels the need to visit him at different intervals. But soon, we realise, that Montse has a darker agenda. He becomes caught up in her 'shrew's nest' and finds it increasingly unsafe to escape from her dangerous obsession.
Unfortunately, at this point, the final-third delves into a blood-soaked level of high camp. The macabre is nullified for black comedy. It wants to be unabashedly entertaining now. It wants to mutilate bodies for laughs. Some will be in stitches. I was more responsive to the slow-build horror of it all. Much more rewarding in keeping things despondent and morbid. Instead, music is ratcheted to a higher octave and the lunacy runs rampant.
Still, the themes are not obfuscated. No one is left unblemished by the horrific past. Abusive power is shown to be truly scarring. Familial hardships can never be forgotten in a sick, tragic world.