There’s a persistent competence on display in Wildcat that is at first reassuring but eventually frustrating. In this ultra-low-budget drama that takes place largely within a single, very small, set, the controlled environment allows for very few glaring missteps – the plot is relatively tight, the acting is reined in, and the limited on-screen space is explored with enough variety to avoid visual inertia. As the film plods along, however, its inherent trappings wear thin and the audience is left wondering if that’s all there is. Spoiler alert: yes, that’s all there is. In a film that initially sparks with promise, the filmmakers fail to shift into a higher gear.
Rocky political tensions between the U.S. and Iraq drive the film’s conflict, which situates the drama in an apparently purposely undefined context. The film’s refusal to disclose whether it’s set during the Bush era or present day makes it difficult to properly illuminate the specifics of each character’s motivations. But that decision seems of a piece with this screenplay, which – perhaps by necessity of its very limited on-screen scope – favors acute character dynamics as opposed to the political implications of the world outside its central Iraqi bunker.
Inside that bunker, Khadija Young (Georgina Campbell) has just been taken captive by a militant terrorist group. After her convoy was ambushed, only Khadija and a single soldier liaison, Luke (Luke Benward), were left alive. The goal of the group’s quietly menacing leader (Mido Hamada) is to torture them until they disclose enough security details about the nearby U.S. Embassy to conduct a successful raid. The disparity in tactics is quite vast – while the captors seem content with removing one of Khadija’s fingernails per day, they haul Luke into an unseen room to conduct what sounds like much more severe torture methods. Whether that’s an appropriate strategy is left open for debate, since Luke is ultimately more of a dumb brute, whereas Khadija seems to have a firm grasp on the intel the militia seeks.
Exactly how does Khadija possess all this sensitive information? After all, she’s just a journalist and translator for a small European news organization…or is she? Her ultimate identity is the screenplay’s most effectively cagey element, and Campbell’s performance capably maintains a balance between fear and provocation – we’re never quite sure if she’s at the mercy of her captors or if they’re at hers. That uncertainty remains the single element of suggestion that carries us through what eventually becomes a monotonous repetition of interrogations and torture sessions for little thematic or narrative purpose other than treading water en route to the 90-minute mark.
Wildcat seems so satisfied with its core concept that it doesn’t have a plan to navigate that concept through a feature-length story. Jonathan W. Stokes, the writer-director, is a veteran director of shorts, and in short form, this film would’ve likely excelled. At feature length, however, Stokes seem either unable or unwilling to evolve his themes from one act to the next, so that once everything is established, there’s not much nuance to carry us through to the film’s desired conclusion. The film is competently mounted, and Campbell is an intriguing screen presence, but what, ultimately, is the purpose of this movie? It offers no new geopolitical perspective, nor any creative spin on the escape picture, beyond its initial set-up. Wildcat feels like it should’ve been the short film that was made as a basis for a future-state feature that is more thoroughly developed.