Actuarially speaking, Santos is a marvel. Despite his dangerous line of work, it will be the sicknesses of old age that kill him. This will be a dubious blessing for the hitman. Both his ravaged body and troubled conscience will torment him in Javier Rebello’s The Dead Man and Being Happy (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as a main slate selection of the 50th New York Film Festival.
The expatriate Spaniard had a long career. He killed many people, but he cannot remember his first. This bothers him. Packing up the vintage Ford Falcon with a cooler full of morphine, Santos will run through the list obsessively as he embarks on a road trip into the countryside. He has blown off his final assignment, perhaps as a form of indirect suicide. Nonetheless, he panics every time he thinks he sees “the large man with thick glasses and tiny eyes” who commissioned the job Santos walked away from.
Eventually, Santos picks up Erika, who will start off as a traveling companion and become a nurse, among other ambiguous roles. He is lucky to have her. When the drugs run out, it is not a pretty sight. Nor is José Sacristán’s naked body, which viewers have two opportunities to see in all its splotchiness this weekend, between Dead Man and David Trueba’s Madrid, 1987, which just opened at the Quad, finally finding its way to New York from this year’s Sundance. Frankly, that might be more than weaker eyes can stand.
Nonetheless, he is quite good as Santos, tapping into deep wells of world weary regret. Sacristán also seems to be making of habit of playing nude scenes with much younger actresses, so hats off to him. Roxana Blanco might not be riveting, but she projects a suitably warm, compassionate presence as Erika. Jorge Jellinek, the Uruguayan film critic who was so pitch-perfect in Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life, hardly has much opportunity to stretch his acting chops here, but he always looks interesting as the big man with small eyes.
Yet, regardless of his cast’s merits, it is Rebello who truly dominates the film through his constant use two ironic narrators. There is not much need to emote when the audience is told before each scene exactly what the characters will feel. While it is often clever in individual instances, the cumulative effect is rather exhausting. It is the sort of self-conscious stylization that quickly displays diminishing marginal returns.