OCTOBER 18, 2009
On Friday night I was sort of thrust onto the red carpet to interview the various Screamfest talent that had shown up for opening night and drum up interest for their film(s) playing later in the week. While I’m always happy to talk to a filmmaker, I felt really dumb being put on the spot, as I had to have every filmmaker not only explain who he was, but even whether his film was a short or a feature. But I was glad I did, because director Mario Muñoz piqued my interest in his film Bajo La Sal by telling me about the occasional stop-motion sequences that appeared in the film (and I’m glad I was prepared for them - a couple of audience members didn’t know how to react when the first one appeared on-screen).
I’ve certainly seen a number of serial killer procedural films, but it’s rare that the characters are just as interesting as the case, which is most certainly the case here. The identity of the killer isn’t too taxing to figure out, but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film one bit. Like Crimson Rivers, we essentially have two protagonists, each immersing themselves in a different aspect of the same case. But unlike Rivers, our two heroes never “team up”, in fact they only share two scenes together and don’t even really interact in them. Of course, one’s a middle aged cop and the other is a 16 year old kid, so it would probably be pretty silly for them to partner up and investigate blood trails or whatever.
But it’s interesting how equally enjoyable they are. Sometimes in dual narrative films you like one character a lot more than the other and kind of sigh when the focus turns to the lesser guy for a while, but that’s not how Bajo is. The cop is interesting because he’s sort of fallen from grace due to a botched case in Juarez, and is looking to solve this case in order to get back on top. And his old partner is now the sheriff of the little mining town where the movie takes place, so you get that sort of “old friends” camaraderie that works quite well thanks to the solid acting of Humberto Zurita and Emilio Guerrero.
On the other hand, you have Ricardo Polanco as the 16 year old, who is also the creator of the stop-motion sequences (he’s a horror nut too, so I of course instantly side with him). He has lost his mother, his dad is absentee, and he is understandably smitten with Irene Azuela’s character, who may or may not (OK, may) be involved with the killings. Their budding romance is really the heart of the film, and this being a dramatic tale about a murderer, you should probably know that things aren’t all sunshine and roses for them. Again, the strong character development, increasingly rare in this type of film, allows for the rather familiar procedural scenes to feel fresher and more interesting than in the usual Se7en knockoffs (it’s worth noting that the film has very little on-screen violence - the goriest on-screen kill is in the stop-motion stuff).
It’s also a pretty interesting backdrop for a thriller. The salt mine doesn’t factor into the plot as much as I initially thought it would, but it’s still an ever-present aspect of the film’s world. I don’t know if the city is real or not, but it certainly FEELS like a breathing, living place; you can sense its history and (perhaps due to the fact that I don’t recognize any of the actors) believe that the characters are real people living there.
It could use a bit of shaving though, maybe 5 minutes or so. Once the killer is identified (if you haven’t figured it out) it should ramp up a bit more than it does, but he rambles for a while, and whole scenes are devoted to things that could have been clarified with a line of dialogue. Then again, after watching a dozen stories get told in 20 minutes or less, maybe I had to be re-adjusted for a 110 minute or so narrative.
The film was produced by Warner Bros’ Mexican counterpart; I am not sure if they will be distributing it here in the states (or anywhere else), but I hope if/when they do they give it a proper release. And if they decide to pull a Sony (Quarantine/[Rec]) and just bury the thing for a while so they can mount an English language remake, may I suggest getting Clooney and Pitt to play the two main cops? You need to know right off the bat that these guys are old pals, why not save time by casting guys with a cinematic history together? I also would accept Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis.
What say you?