Directed by Alberto Rodríguez
See the score at the bottom? That’s not what I think. Instead it’s what I think you’ll think if you dig detective thrillers. If, like me, you generally don’t then chop at least one star off. Because make no mistake, this is a genre piece through and through and likely won’t pick up new recruits. However, if you’re into this type of movie, then the Goya Award sweeping Marshland (directed by Alberto Rodriguez) could well be a strong contender for film of the year.
As with the somewhat popular HBO show True Detective, Marshland is a rural murder mystery noir, with lashings of colour correction and a pair ideologically opposed cops who are tortured in their own ways. Here the officers in question are the honest and left wing reformer Pedro (Arévalo), and the more old school former Franco brute Juan (Gutiérrez). It’s 1980 and a two teenage sisters have gone missing in the wetlands around the Guadalquivir River, in Spain’s Deep South. In full thriller form, the scope of this small-scale investigation soon widens from to encompass a string of unsolved murders from years past, and it appears there’s more to the case than immediately meets the eye. Against the backdrop of a politically changing Spain our heroes will wrestle with authority, upturn bodies and chase down villains. And to be fair, it’s all done very competently, even if it feels extremely standard.
Yet two things separate Marshland from the archetype: the visuals and the characters. Firstly, it looks excellent, and goes far beyond the aesthetic standard of most thrillers. Opening with stunning aerial shots of the region, the full splendor of this seldom-seen part of Spain is expertly captured. As the investigation leads us among the lights of carnivals, between thick trees, through torrential rains and down wide rivers the landscape never looks less than beautiful. Yet the makers do not shy away from grit, and there are some truly ugly moments including when the girl’s bodies are found mutilated, shortly into the investigation. The action scenes are also expertly judged, with long tracking shots giving chases on foot and in cars a contagious energy that doesn’t glorify the violence or cross into sensationalist territory.
Pleasingly the violence is met with significant psychological consequences. Unlike a number of more-stylish-than-thou noirs, the characters grieve and the community feels a loss. The girls’ parents (Torre and Barros) are reasonably engaging, and our crime-fighting duo also transcend the outline of what could have easily been a cartoony dynamic. Their tension appears to stand in for modern Spain coming to terms with, and moving on from, its fascist legacy. Yet the contrast to their approaches is not as over-egged or didactic as it easily could have been. Furthermore it’s clear each has something to teach the other and both contribute significantly and positively to the investigation. There’s also no splatterings of derpy buddy-cop conventions at all. Yeah, it’s frustrating that some of the supporting cast don’t get shades beyond black and white – particularly the villains. But overall there are real (if scantily detailed) personal stakes underlying the plot, and come the end you’ll feel like you’ve been on both an emotional journey and a procedural one.
The problem is it’s just a little too by the book. Most scenes feel like a linear patchwork of clues leading to the next, with the usual suspects hauled in for questioning and macho posturing getting in the way of character development. And while above I praised the film’s depth, this is largely meant relative to other genre pieces. As with slashers, crime thrillers will tend to use character to advance plot rather than vice versa, and your appreciation for Marshland will likely vary depending on how you like this balance to be addressed. Unlike its sister sub-genre though detective movies don’t have the same unashamed sense of fun, with the tone being more somber than the ghost-train Freddy and Jason flicks. Consequently I don’t think it can be so easily excused for lacking dramatic fundamentals as a lot of the lower brow horrors. You may disagree.
As with the 4 stars I controversially gave Teeth, the shiny gold ones below are not a recommendation per se. Instead, your interest in the concept will go a long way towards determining if it works much for you or not. As with how those that don’t want to see a vagina with jaws chewing off men’s bits and bobs will be less than enthused by that that movie, those that don’t like police procedurals won’t be stirred by this one. Now there’s two movies I didn’t think I’d be comparing when I started this. But then sometimes a mental trail can be as surprising as a criminal one.