The most memorable and interesting part of Baatar Batsukh’s directorial debut, Aberrance, isn’t the plot, performances, or script, but the cinematography. And, considering the director’s resume, his masterful camera work is no surprise. While Aberrance is the first feature film he’s directed, he’s no stranger to the camera. The Mongolian filmmaker has worked on over 20 films over the last 10 years. Prior to Aberrance, he was most known for his cinematography in The Steed (2019). With Aberrance, a psychological thriller set in a snowy and secluded part of Mongolia, Batsukh establishes himself as a talented visual storyteller with a keen understanding of color, camera angles, and imagery. Unfortunately, the plot of this thriller crumbles in a rushed final act that distracts from the film’s beauty. Still, Aberrance has a lot to offer. While the story could use some work, it’s is an artfully chilling movie that relies on sensory storytelling to create a riveting viewing experience.
Aberrance is about a couple, Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal) and Erkhmee (Erkhembayar Ganbat), who take a break from their city life to spend some time in a secluded cabin in the woods. As the couple unpacks and takes in the fresh air, odd things begin to happen. It’s clear that Selenge has been through something dreadful, and the strange goings on at the cabin are only making her trauma worse. The couple’s only company is an odd but friendly neighbor (Yalalt Namsrai) who immediately becomes concerned for Selenge’s wellbeing. The seemingly peaceful and rejuvenating cabin proves to be the perfect setting for a horror story as the couple’s getaway unravels into a nightmare.
One of Batsukh’s greatest achievements as director and cinematographer of Aberrance is the way he conveys specific emotions with pictures. Before the story begins, he sets the tone for the film with haunting images of a dark forest. The ghostly white snow and bare gray trees prepare viewers for an unsettling psychological story. This chilling visual sequence returns later in the film, becoming a memorable motif that connects Selenge’s frightening inner world with her reality. Once the story starts, there’s not a lot of dialogue. But Batsukh doesn’t need dialogue to set the mood. After the opening visual motif, Batsukh creates a foreboding tone with harsh angles and striking colors. He captures each scene in a unique way, using shots from unconventional angles that maximize the tension between Selenge and Erkhmee. Almost every shot is like a carefully composed painting, with each element placed just so. Batsukh balances disturbing imagery (blood, an animal carcass, injuries) with beauty (snow-covered landscapes and natural light), creating a surreal and chilling world that makes Aberrance memorable. The score, written by first-time film composers Ochsuren Davaasuren and Jargal Oyunerdene, is the perfect complement to the eerie visual elements.
There are, however, a few aspects of the cinematography that aren’t as successful. While most of the angles highlight the tension between the characters, some shorts break the eerie illusion. A few of the point-of-view shots and closeups used during emotionally intense sequences are more amateur than artful and more comedic than chilling. Every once in a while, one of these awkward shots disrupts the visual cohesiveness of Aberrance, making it difficult to take the story seriously.
Whether the cinematography is 100% successful or not, it’s clear that this element of the film got the most attention. Batsukh put maximum effort into the visual aspects of Aberrance, playing with colors, light, and angles in a delightful and thought-provoking way. The other aspects of the film, however, didn’t receive as much attention. For the most part, this isn’t a big deal. There’s very little dialogue, but the detailed visual storytelling makes up for the lack of conversation. The performances don’t particularly stand out, but they aren’t bad either. They’re simply there to support the cinematography. In most movies, it’s the other way around. Aberrance offers a different kind of cinematic experience, one that’s much more sensory and dreamlike. As long as the minimalistic dialogue and plot blend seamlessly into the background, this type of storytelling works.
Things fall apart, however, when the story goes off the rails so much that it distracts from the stunning visuals. The main issue is that Batsukh tries to tackle entirely too much with the plot, including mental illness, relationships, the human condition, violence, and “the system.” There’s just not enough time in Aberrance to explore these themes fully. Eventually, it all comes crashing down in a few highly unsatisfying twists. The story isn’t what you think it’s going to be, but the plot twists are messy rather than mind-blowing. The halfhearted storytelling and rushed thematic development can’t support the artistry and visual design of the film, and they distract from its beauty. Aberrance is, in fact, quite beautiful, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t have the story to match.
In select theaters on October 6, 2023.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.