Film Review: Squeal
Director: Aik Karapetian
Good Deed Entertainment, Cranked Up Films
Released in Theaters: 8.19
If you’ve spent enough time on the internet in the last year and a half, you’ve probably seen or heard something about the “alpha/beta/sigma” male. It’s an unsettlingly widespread trend within the toxic wilderness of the world wide web, where men obsessed with their masculinity argue that to be the peak—or “sigma”—male, one must truly be a lone wolf. He’s stronger than the alpha because he doesn’t care about his place in the social hierarchy; he rejects external validation and pursues his own individual, internal strength.
It’s also a load of bullshit. Squeal, directed by Aik Karapetian, appears to take a page from this ideology. The film follows Sam, played by Kevin Janssens, as he is taken captive by two rural farmers and forced to labor for them in the pigsty behind their house. Throughout the film, Sam develops a kind of sexual tension with farmer’s daughter Kirke (Laura Siliņa), attempts escape, earns small glimpses of freedom such as being allowed to attend a party while chained, and actually manages to escape at the end before being drawn back by his emotional needs.
Karapetian’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Aleksandr Rodionov) uses this story to examine an interesting duality in men: the masculine romanticization of loneliness vs the human need for community. While I may disagree with its vague conclusion, it’s actually the examinative approach as a whole that I take the most issue with; but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.
The film opens with a piglet running through the woods as a storybook-esque narrator tells us its inner feelings. The uncredited voice is deep but not harsh as it explains the piglet feels that it’s “better to die exhausted in freedom from starvation than to be satiated in slavery.” Meanwhile, Kirke wanders through the woods dreading the worst: “that the piglet had already been torn to pieces and devoured by the local wolves.” We are then introduced to Sam, seeking his father whom he’s never met. He hits the piglet with his car, assumes it’s dead and is trying to bury it when Kirke finds him. Night is falling, so she takes him and the pig to her family’s farmhouse.
As Sam lies naked in bed, the narrator tells us: “Hot food, a warm bed and the caring hands of a woman are enough to soothe the brow of even the most frantic traveler. Soon he would forget about not only searching for his father, but also about his most faithful companion: loneliness. Or as he called it, freedom.”
It’s at this point that the idea of ‘loneliness as freedom’ emerges as a central theme. To the minds of both the pig and Sam, to be alone is to be free. At the same time, traditional masculinity and gender roles start to take hold. Kirke’s motivations for the rest of the film are revealed to be that she simply desires a strong, loyal man who will help protect her and the family’s livelihood. Later, after his second and successful escape attempt, the narrator states Sam is completely alone in the world, which is what drives him to return to the farm … even after forty minutes of hell.
Let’s talk about Sam’s hell. The next morning, Sam’s actual freedom is actually taken from him when he is ambushed by Kirke’s father, Gustavs (Aigars Vilims), and the local farmhand, Jančuks (Normunds Griestinš). Sam’s taken to the pigsty where he is stripped, chained up, fed slop, and forced to work by cleaning and feeding the pigs. It’s never made explicit how long Sam works in the pigsty, but some time later a pair of rival farmers to Gustavs arrive to look at Sam. They try to buy him as a replacement for Jančuks, but Gustavs turns them down. This—paired with Jančuks’ love for Kirke and jealousy at her clear crush on Sam—pushes him to free Sam that night. Jančuks frees him and they make a run for it, but Kirke makes chase. Jančuks sends Sam ahead and scuffles with Kirke in a field. When he gets to the treeline, though, Sam freezes. Shimmering in the shadows are the eyes of the local wolves. While the piglet might have rather died by wolf feast than go back, Sam disagrees. He turns back and saves Kirke from Jančuks’ attempted attack.
In exchange for saving Kirke, Sam is treated to a longer chain, and the audience is treated to the film’s best shot. The camera trails behind Sam as he stumbles into the light of the sty’s outdoor paddock. A light flute and birdsong underscore the captive man’s first sight of the woods in the daylight. It’s a wonderful piece of camera work.
There are several key events that happen after this which I won’t spoil here, but, as I alluded, Sam does eventually manage to escape again. He then returns, driven by his desire for love and his absence of community. He and Kirke then get married, despite her actively assisting in holding Sam captive. This is a resolution that I struggled to grapple with for apparent reasons but managed to accept due to Janssens’ performance as Sam and Siliņa’s as Kirke. The movie ends with Sam and Kirke fulfilling their traditional gender roles and Sam leaving the lonely, free, “sigma” existence of his past.
Except that’s not where it ends. The morning after their wedding night, Sam hears a prominent oink and goes to check it out. (By the way, all but one of the pigs were killed in a fire about ten minutes before this.) By this point I’d mostly soured on the narrator, who was often redundant due to the effectiveness of the film’s visual storytelling, so you can imagine my mild sigh when he returned for the final scene.
As Sam gazes at the final pig in front of him, the narrator says, “The pig’s farewell filled Sam’s heart with an all-encompassing sadness. At this moment, he realized his journey had been devoid of any sense or meaning. Having given up his own freedom and not having found [his father], suddenly Sam was wracked with doubt. He wondered if he should abandon Kirke and continue his journey, even though in freedom he would encounter even greater threats.”
I find it fascinating and a little irritating that in a film so explicitly conveying meaning—how a man will always be torn between his lonely, so-called free, animal instinct and his desire to be loved, comforted and needed—the narrator himself has the audacity to say that it was devoid of it.
In the final shot, Sam steps forward into frame. The last pig wanders over the horizon and into the woods. Sam stands alone. He looks back at the farm, then back to the horizon. He doesn’t follow the pig, but he’s clearly uncertain. The movie ends on that uncertainty.
My most optimistic take is that Squeal is a misguided attempt to comment on traditional masculinity, under which a man is expected to be strong, emotionally independent and physically alone. I read Sam’s choice to stay with Kirke as an acceptance of his need for love and affection, and his final uncertainty is meant to be read as the looming pressure from traditional masculinity that he resists. The language of “giving up his own freedom” to be in a somewhat-healthy relationship is a result of how he was raised and not emblematic of who he is at the end of the film. My most pessimistic reading of the film is what’s explicitly said: When it comes to being a man, it’s better to be free, alone and in danger than to be “satiated” and “enslaved” by the love of a woman.
Either way, the film leaves me uncertain and a little uncomfortable. If you’re interested in an odd, international indie-folk fairy tale that will leave you dizzy trying to discern meaning, I think Squeal is worth a watch, no matter what the narrator tries to tell you. –Max Bennion
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