‘Carancho’ follows a crooked road
Thriller set in Buenos Aires is both exhilarating, violent
If certain Argentine movies are to be believed, nothing lasts without a fight in Buenos Aires. Love, money, redemption, and even memories are subject to the whims of a city that appears alive and hungry with mischief and vengeance. It abides neither immoral comeuppance nor happy or at least simple endings. “Carancho’’ is a particularly jaw-dropping example of what this great, cunning city — on film, anyway — is capable of: an exhilarating bummer.
Hector Sosa (Ricardo Darín) is the sort of lawyer who finds new clients at the scene of a car accident. Luján (Martina Gusman) is the forbidding sort of doctor who rolls her eyes as men like Sosa pick over the victims she’s trying to save.
But in a way that seems wholly characteristic of a bottom-feeding lawyer he pursues her, and, in a way uncharacteristic of such a solemn physician she doesn’t discourage the pursuit. Sosa works for a company that makes a lot of money filing suits on behalf of poor, injured people who are unaware that the company keeps most of the settlements for itself. He wasn’t always so shady, but he lost his license, and now here he is.
After one of her night shifts, Luján shares a nice moment with Sosa in the window of a coffee shop. The camera inches toward them from afar, as he threatens to kiss her if two cars consecutively run a red light. It’s a moment that imparts a pleasure she will learn to love: a lawyer’s romance of lawlessness. “Trucks count,’’ he insists, and before it has finished gripping and shaking us, director Pablo Trapero’s movie will make us feel, with brute force, just how much they do.
Trapero packs a small irony (the doctor in the ambulance being courted by the ambulance chaser) into a larger one that, as Sosa might say, involves accidents versus incidents versus free will. In this woman, the opportunistic Sosa sees a real chance to be rescued, too. What she sees is less clear. But Trapero shows Luján clouding her clarity with regular injections of morphine that partially explain the look of numbness that passes over a face often obscured by hair and glasses. She’s someone whose rigor and self-control, we’re to believe, have a blind spot or two. The relationship with Sosa entangles her first in attraction and ethics, then in far more complicated business, as he tries with to break up with business partners who don’t handle rejection well.
The movie’s Spanish title describes the type of lawyer that hovers like a vulture over a crime scene. It carries a more violent sound when spoken aloud in English. There are moments when it feels as if Trapero is working hard to achieve that affect. This is a film that’s musical with the cracking of bones and crashing of cars. Gritty style gets the director through the dubious grisly patches of the screenplay he wrote with Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, and Santiago Mitre. Those stretches include a shocking moment that occurs somewhat late and exists only to lift the film to a new stage of suspense. However, it’s also a development meant to indicate who controls the fates of both the movie’s characters and the city’s inhabitants — and even then, we know only the half of it. What Trapero excels at is leveling with us. The movie commits itself to luridness without pretending it’s up to something more seemly. Last year’s hit foreign-language Oscar-winner from Argentina, “The Secret in Their Eyes,’’ was all pretend: It treated horror like harlequin romance.
“Carancho’’ is a leaner, meaner number. Trapero hankers for film noir, which he uniquely expresses with a lot of photography of the backs of heads and the sides of faces. The only visage I can recall in its fullness is Darín’s. He was the best thing in the “The Secret in Their Eyes.’’ Here his rumpled face puts across both weariness, will, and want in the way only a movie star’s can. But it’s Gusman who’s still haunting me. Even when Luján has to clear an emergency room of wounded enemies who continue to fight from their respective beds, Gusman maintains a look of bleary calm. You worry that she’s overmedicated. With Sosa, her hollowness eventually fills in with feeling. And as the story intensifies that seriousness becomes more wounded, and harder for hair and cinematography to hide. It’s alarming how, suddenly, a stony face you were so eager to see becomes one you’re desperate to forget. More alarming is how this movie won’t let you forget it.