Folk horror You Won’t Be Alone has arresting aesthetics, but drags its feet

An isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia is the setting for shape-shifting witch horror You Won’t Be Alone. Travis Johnson doesn’t quite fall under its spell, labeling the film challenging but rewarding viewing – up to a point.

If revered but frequently maddening philosopher-filmmaker Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) turned his hand to making a horror movie for indie darlings A24, it might look a lot like You Won’t Be Alone, the debut feature from Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski.

The commonalities shared between Malick’s established style and what Stolevski is putting down here are clear: an elliptical, occasionally impenetrable narrative that eschews clarity and demands attention; a stylised, dreamlike visual approach that is counterpointed by the occasional jarring edit; a concern with images of nature and landscape that comes at the expense of pace; and a resulting film that is more cerebral than emotional.

Yet while Malick often (heck, always) deals with esoteric ontological themes, he has never grappled with an overtly supernatural story (although one could make a case for The Tree of Life). By contrast, You Won’t Be Alone is firmly embedded in the folk horror tradition, replete with witches, spells, shapeshifting, and blood—quite a lot of blood at times. That Stolevski, like Malick, is pursuing his own philosophical aims within the genre material is either a plus or a minus, depending on whether you think a horror movie should have anything so gauche as suspense and rising action. While the film’s deliberate pace and refusal to cleave to narrative conventions are not necessarily a net negative, it’s useful to set your expectations accordingly.

We find ourselves in the forested hill country of 19th century Macedonia, where a witch (or wolf-eateress, as the film evocatively labels her), Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca), lays claim to a newborn baby, vowing to return to take her when she is sixteen. The baby’s mother Yoana (Kamka Tocinovski) hides the mite away in a cave in the interim, but as promised, the hag returns when Navena (Sara Klimoska) comes of age, killing her mother and initiating the teen into the ways of witchcraft.

Which is all very well, if a little rote, but things get interesting when it becomes apparent that the key component of this form of witchcraft is to take on another’s shape after killing them. Eventually abandoned by Maria, Navena assumes a number of forms—a peasant woman, a male villager, a stray dog, eventually a little girl. Stolevski blurs our usual points of identification with the protagonist by having her change appearance so often but keeps the film’s point of view congruent with hers, forcing us to work to keep up. I’m reminded of Shane Carruth’s lyrical oddity Upstream Color, which is more or less told from the point of view of a bizarre disease. Here we experience a multitude of lives with Navena, pleasures and pains and little triumphs and crushing tragedies, and our task is to try to hold onto the person being shaped by them, even if we can’t directly “see” them.

This all makes You Won’t Be Alone challenging but rewarding viewing—up to a point. There are times when Stolevski is being a little too oblique, a touch too dismissive of narrative norms. While the film remains intellectually interesting, it is emotionally deadened, and events that should pack a punch are instead just another thread in the tapestry the filmmaker is weaving. That may be the intent, but it means those expecting something more conventional in their horror may be disappointed.