Netflix UK film review: The Old Ways
Disorienting cold turkey8
…and yet it's no turkey8
Anton Bitel | On 05, Mar 2021
Director: Christopher Alender
Cast: Brigitte Kali Canales, Andrea Cortés, Julia Vera, Sal Lopez, AJ Bowen
Watch The Old Ways online in the UK: Netflix UK
“There are many demons,” Miranda (Andrea Cortés) explains to her long-lost relative Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), in The Old Ways.
After a brief introductory flashback to decades earlier, in which Cristina’s mother (Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez), on her deathbed and very much not herself, appears possessed to her terrified little girl (Elizabeth Phoenix Caro), the narrative shifts to the present – and in medias res, as Cristina finds herself trapped in a barn, with her arms in chains and a sack over her head. How she came to be in this predicament will be revealed only gradually, through dialogue and more flashbacks, in a narrative strategy that makes the viewer share the protagonist’s wrenching sense of dislocation and alienation.
After her mother’s death, little Cristina was moved north across the border and fostered in Los Angeles, where she grew up to be a troubled journalist. Now, for the first time in 28 years, she has returned to her ancestral home in Veracruz, Mexico, in pursuit of a story, and after stumbling alone into a taboo cave known as “La Boca” (the mouth), she is being held captive by the middle-aged Javi (Sal Lopez) and his mother (Julia Vera), a “bruja” (witch), both of whom are absolutely convinced that Cristina is hosting a demon inside of her. Mother and son are determined to ascertain exactly which demon has taken possession of her, and then to cast it out through a series of painful rituals.
Urbanised and secularised, Cristina thinks these two are obviously deranged, and will do anything to escape their clutches, but she has come with her own personal demons hidden within: an addiction to heroin, and a general sense of emptiness and despair. As Cristina undergoes her ordeal in the barn, her exorcism runs in parallel to the trials of going cold turkey. This ensures that the The Old Ways operates simultaneously on literal and metaphorical levels in its telling of one woman’s journey back to integrity, wellness and purged, purified selfhood.
The bruja is conspicuously blind in one eye. It is a marker of her clairvoyant ability to see in two distinct worlds – one material, one spiritual. Yet in this film of divisions and dualities, the witch is not alone in bridging irreconcilable borders. The bilingual Miranda too is caught between community tradition and family allegiance, local superstition and her university education, while Cristina herself, rootless and estranged, straddles the boundaries of north and south, old ways and new, as she struggles to navigate a language and culture that are her own but long forgotten, and to separate out her true identity and destiny from any baleful influences, external or internal. Cristina is a broken soul in need of repair, and her homecoming is also a restorative return to values lost.
Written by Marcos Gabriel (who previously collaborated with director Christopher Alender rather improbably on Muppets Now), The Old Ways certainly offers all the diabolical intrusions and body-horror effects that you would expect from a conventional exorcism movie – but it also reflects on the fluid borderlands between the US and Mexico, city and country, Christian and pagan, while wisely avoiding the spectre of Trumpian xenophobia that haunted Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona.
Watch out for indie genre stalwart AJ Bowen (The Signal, The House of the Devil, You’re Next) in a small but significant role as Cristina’s editor/boyfriend Carson, as damaged as she is in his own way. This is ultimately a therapeutic story where a long-abandoned legacy is finally, willingly embraced. For here, as everywhere, there are many demons, and the battle between good and evil, far from ever ending, is merely passed down the generations – yet the one-eyed will always be queen in this world, and we get to see its ongoing curses and cures both through her eyes and embodied in her person.
The Old Ways is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.
This review was originally published during the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival.