Monday, February 15, 2016

PIFF ’16: Marshland

It is 1980 in Spain—a time when all able bodied men were required to carry moustaches. The nation was also in the midst of transitioning to a more democratic form of government, which was all very nice, but rather inconvenient timing for homicide detective Juan Robles. He has been dispatched to the rural south to find missing twin girls, but finds evidence of a depraved serial killer instead. He would like to cut his usual corners, but his crusading partner and CYA-ing superiors will force him to do things the hard way in Alberto Rodríguez’s Marshland (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Portland International Film Festival.

Initially, Robles and reform-minded Pedro Suárez treat the disappearance of Carmen and Estrella as a missing person case, but they find their bodies all too quickly. More unsettling, they are soon presented with circumstantial evidence linking the murder of the twins with the deaths or disappearances of several other local girls. They all went missing around the time of the annual carnival and each were somehow linked to the village’s sleazy lothario, “Quini” Varela. However, Varela’s blood type is different from what was recovered from the bodies—and he seems to know it.

As Robles and Suárez pursue Varela’s accomplice, differences in their methods and backgrounds lead to conflict. Suárez is currently out of favor within the police establishment, because of an open letter he sent to the newspapers protesting departmental corruption. On the other hand, Robles’ long tenure of service under Franco makes him highly suspect.

With Marshland, Rodríguez steps up his game tremendously from the disappointingly middling Unit 7. While staying within the police procedural sub-genre, he shows a mastery of mood and fully capitalizes on the lonely but cinematic wetland backdrops. If not exactly a whodunit per se, the particulars of their case are highly compelling. By the standards of Spanish cinema, it is also relatively reserved in its Franco-era score-settling, mostly using the legacy of the old regime to create tension for the reluctant partners.

Javier Gutiérrez is total dynamite as the roguish old tougher-than-he-looks Robles. Wiry like a coiled spring, he might be fun to drink with, but he is all kinds dangerous. Gutiérrez convincingly conveys his charismatic charm and the ruthlessness he can turn on like a light switch. Raúl Arévalo does his best to keep up, but Suárez’s goody-two-shoes persona is no match for Robles’ grand complexities. However, Salva Reina adds some nice salty flavor as Jesús, the rustic outcast who becomes the coppers’ guide through the treacherous marshes.

Unlike the problematically slack Unit 7, Marshland is tight and tense the whole way through. It is a ripping good thriller, executed with stylish bravado. Recommended for mainstream fans of cop-and-serial killer movies, Marshland screens this Friday (2/19) and next Monday (2/22), as part of this year’s PIFF (and by the way, it’s also already available on DVD).