The unspoken and often ineffable syzygy between sisters sharing in a mutual trauma is one rife for cinematic inquiry, from the films of Ingmar Bergman to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and even “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Cathy Brady’s “Wildfire” is set in a fractious Ireland where the gulf between estranged siblings Kelly (Nika McGuigan) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) is as wide and blurry as the void between the North and the South post-Brexit. While the film at first establishes a political framework with a blistering montage of current events in the UK, “Wildfire” shifts into a more personal tale about women shouldering psychic damage, and coming together to reckon with the past. While occasionally veering into melodrama, Brady’s feature debut is a powerful slice of kitchen-sink gloom, and a blazing portrait of women on fire, unsure of where to go in the wake of rippling tragedy. And the film itself becomes all the more tragic once, by the closing credits, it’s revealed star McGuigan, who gives a chilling and complex performance, died from cancer while the film was in post-production in 2019.
The events of the film are set in motion by the return of Kelly to the quiet Northern border town from which she abandoned her sister more than a year ago. Kelly, arriving in customs like a wounded animal, appears as a feral vagabond who’s lived quite a life on the road, and can’t readjust to the life she knew before. When she shows up at Lauren’s doorstep, she’s mud-soaked, bedraggled, and skittish, like someone plopped into a foreign country who can’t speak the language. Lauren, meanwhile, who holds a menial job at a warehouse nearby, has an understandably complicated reaction to Kelly’s arrival. While relieved to know the sister who flew the coop is out of harm’s way, and back in her orbit, she’s also repulsed by Kelly’s sudden reappearance out of nowhere, and governed by what, exactly? To wit, the film remains ambiguous as to the precise reason for Kelly’s return, except perhaps out of absolute rock-bottom neediness.
It’s revealed that Kelly and Lauren both have a close relationship to mental illness, as their mother was deeply unwell in their upbringing, often perched on the edge of suicide and unable to cope with the demands of domesticity and motherhood. That bristly attitude toward decorum and expectation has been passed on to Kelly, who likes to start trouble with the locals for no one reason, and Lauren, visibly haunted by the emotional inheritance left behind by her mother, whose recent death under questionable circumstances is what sent Kelly away.
While Brady’s psychological drama eventually starts to go in more predictable directions, including the nature of the matriarch’s death as signaled by increasingly unsubtle flashbacks conveyed by ethereal camerawork, the dynamic between Kelly and Lauren is an off-kilter, curious, and often deranged thing. A striking scene in a bar finds the women manically dancing, in almost animalistic synchrony, sweat-soaked and bulge-eyed, and indifferent to the eyes and ears of the local swine who haunt the pub.
Kelly, meanwhile, seems to like to drive the nail in just to see what happens, whether picking a fight with townspeople that lands her a bloody nose, or messing with the little kids who swim in the lake abutting Lauren’s house. McGuigan’s performance is loaded with contradictions that will have your head spinning, often in the space of a single scene, and it’s thrilling stuff to behold. Noone, by the same coin (in more ways than one), proves an apt accomplice to Kelly’s rage, making Lauren into a broken woman who also wields power over her sister.
The fact that McGuigan won’t live to see her performance onscreen is a tragedy, because she’s a real breakout. Brady affords her leads plenty of atmosphere to play in, thanks to a low-key electric guitar score from Gareth Averill and Matthew James Kelly, Matteo Bini’s editing that often resembles a mind trying to piece itself together, and DP Crystel Fournier’s hallucinogenic images, often edged by a beveled lens. Despite these fashionable aesthetic choices for an indie film, Brady makes her story feel fresh, alive, and specific, simmering with just-out-of-reach-dread, but also adorned by the very particular relationship at the film’s center. Kelly and Lauren might not find redemption, but these two need each other, in their own sick and even tender way.
“Wildfire” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.