Car Crashes Are Bad, by Kyle Anderson
Nothing screams “Oscar bait” like foreign films about social issues and none have screamed louder lately than the Argentinean film Carancho, directed by Pablo Trapero. It is a film so sure of its edginess and grittiness that it thinks it can coast on that alone and not deliver a proper narrative or character development. The general conceit of the film is quite interesting and could have produced some very meaty character pieces, but instead it falls back on melodrama and some admittedly brilliant directorial flourishes.
The film opens with a series of titles describing the growing problem of rampant car crashes in Argentina and we’re told that 8,000 people die every year from it. The government pays victims who survive quite large sums of money as settlements. With this backdrop, the film introduces us to its two leads, Lujan (played by Martina Gusman), an overworked hospital doctor and paramedic who has taken to shooting morphine into her foot to get through the day, and Sosa (played by Ricardo Darin), a lawyer who has had his license taken away and now works for The Foundation essentially circling car crashes in order to convince the victims to grant him power of attorney. Both characters are coasting through life largely unfulfilled and doing things they’d rather not have to do.
They meet after a man on a bicycle is hit by a truck and Sosa is immediately, almost creepily attracted to Lujan, though she is quite wary of him as a “carancho,” Spanish for “vulture.” And indeed, he seems to be just that, waiting around hospitals and police stations, tricking people into becoming his clients. It’s around this same time that Sosa wears Lujan down and she agrees to go out with him and they begin a relationship, though she’s clearly much cooler on the idea than him. This portion of the film crawls along at a rather flat pace and devotes far too much time to people doing nothing, done surely to evoke a “realness” to the surroundings.
The actual plot begins to take shape when Sosa agrees to help a sick, old alcoholic man get money by staging a car accident in the middle of the night, horrifically breaking the man’s leg before the old man throws himself on a passing car. Unfortunately, things go wrong(er) and Lujan is there to witness this. Up to this point, aside from being slow, the film was fairly interesting from a narrative standpoint and delved deeper into either the character’s state of mind or the politics behind the insurance racket, but unfortunately it fizzes away into a half-developed crime narrative.
After the incident Sosa gets cut loose by The Foundation and that’s when we learn of the corruption that goes on in the organization, and probably countless others. It seems the government awards the victims hundreds of thousands of pesos as compensation, but the Foundation pockets all but a small chunk which it gives to the victims’ families claiming that’s all there was. Sosa tries to get back at them by snaking clients away from the Foundation and giving them their proper settlement, which puts his life at risk.
All right, fine, now it’s a movie about corruption exploitation by seemingly clandestine organization passing itself off as a public service. The trouble is, there’s not enough time spent on the intrigue of the whole thing or the people supposedly carrying it out, to the point that when the villains are spoken about, the audience has no clue who these people are by name. The villains themselves are so one dimensional that they may as well be out of a Steven Segal movie from the 1980s and they are played with the arch diabolicalness of Snidely Whiplash.
There’s also the problem of the relationship between Sosa and Lujan which just seemingly goes from ice cold to boiling in a matter of screen minutes. Sosa from the get-go comes across as a psycho-stalker and there’s nothing within the film’s narrative to explain why Lujan would be with him other than that it was written in the script. There’s a great deal of time spent on watching the two of them together and “in love,” with an overly long scene of them dancing at a party followed by an awkwardly-paced scene of them making love afterward, but never once was the nature of their relationship explored further than the initial “I think you’re special”-type things at the beginning. As was bound to happen, Lujan is put in danger at various points in the movie which prompts Sosa to take violent, reckless action as retribution which keeps things moving, but it’s nothing more profound than what you’d find on a nighttime soap opera.
Despite all this, the film does have some bright spots, the most prevalent being Trapero’s frantic direction and superb cinematography. Clearly influenced by Alfonso Cuaron’s work on Children of Men, Carancho has some truly inspired handheld tracking shots that seem to go on forever, following characters performing and witnessing various horrible things. A few times, the action is such that there would have to be a cut in the filming or a seam of editing somewhere, but it’s truly done well enough that you don’t notice it for a second if it’s there. The film ends with two quite spectacular “single-take” shots that are impeccably done and truly shows the director’s prowess, unfortunately what’s happening in the narrative around it is impossibly frustrating and the effect of the final shot was producing a rush of anger quickly followed by disdain as they had done the most obvious thing possible in the least compelling way.
Carancho is a film with a lot of promise and some interesting real-life topics to discuss, but gets too mired down with trying to be “edgy” and “gritty” to actually have any emotional impact. The only lessons it offers are that car crashes are bad and lawyers are greedy, something most people probably already know. Despite some fantastic camera work and finely choreographed action pieces, the film is uneven, frustrating, and ultimately boring.