Alternate Title: No Movie for Old Men
One sentence synopsis: A cancer-stricken Spanish hustler tries to put his life in order for his business partners, ex-wife, and young children before he dies.
Things Havoc liked: This one came very highly recommended from critics and foreign film aficionados I know, and while it turned out to be completely different from what I expected, it was still a really good film. I loved Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and expected to see something of a similar note here. I did not. Bardem plays this character as an essentially good man with an insanely deep sense of responsibility who is desperately trying to stay unbent under the pressure of illness and business/family crises. It's a quiet, understated, almost desperate performance, one that I was not at all expecting, and which impressed me even more than his turn in No Country. The character isn't perfect, but he's incredibly human in his flaws and mistakes. Only once or twice do we catch even a glimpse of the viciousness that Bardem displayed last time, and as a result, even with barely any actual violence (This is not an action movie, and I don't think Bardem ever so much as hits anyone), when he gets angry even for a split second, we sit up and notice.
The rest of the cast is just as good, though I've never seen a single one of them in my life. Bardem's bipolar ex-wife makes you want to cringe every time she's onscreen. His playboy brother is a patently sleazy bastard, yet you like the guy anyway. His relationships with his business partners, the Senegalese street hustlers, the Chinese illegal immigrant workers, everything is done in such a real fashion. No scenery chewing, no bravado threats, not even any violence really. These are characters who know and work with one another, and even trust one another to a point, such that when something goes wrong, they all immediately come together to try and find the right way out, rather than pulling out guns or screaming at each other. And through it all, Bardem moves in something approximating a daze, trying to hold himself together long enough to do right by his kids, his wife, the criminals he works with, and even their families. The movie takes its time, with a muted score, flashes of magical realism that could perhaps be supernatural or just hallucinations or imaginings, and an almost lugubrious pace that lingers over moments of deep introspection or weariness.
Things Havoc disliked: Jesus Fucking Christ, this movie is depressing. It's a cliche of European cinema that every movie they make is a black and white film wherein everyone dies while crazy or cursing God for inflicting terrible misfortunes on them. Well this one's in color.
I hardly require that all my films be uplifting. Some of my favorite movies of all time end badly. But the glacial pace of this movie turns it practically into an exercise in self-torture. I went to see this one with a couple other people, one of whose comment after leaving the theater was "I'm going to go home and shoot myself." It's that depressing. Every single scene, practically, could be subtitled "and then it got worse". There's no real villain in this film except the filmmaker, who seems to hate all of the characters and wishes to dwell on the misery of their lives for inscrutable purposes. It simply gets draining after a while.
Moreover, while I get that they were intentionally making a slow film, it is certainly possible to speed it up a little bit. The Magical Realism sequences, as well as all the stuff about communing with the dead, really didn't seem to go anywhere. Again, I don't need movies to give me all the answers, but I couldn't ever figure out what the point of any of that was. It didn't seem to have anything to do with the story itself, nor the setting. Perhaps it's just a Spanish thing.
Final thoughts: I've seen Javier Bardem in precisely two movies to date, and the distance between them is like night and day. I was very much impressed by this movie, almost enough to forget the torture that it was sitting through it. If only for him, I have to report that I am glad that I went to see this film. I also have to report that I never want to see a single frame of it ever again.
If there's altogether too much happiness and cheer in your life, you'll love this movie.
Final Score: 7/10