Greetings again from the darkness. The best neo-noir crime thrillers immersed in the grim tone of “True Detective”, Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) have a way of drawing us into the atmospheric underbelly of society and keeping us grappling for solid ground until a resolution is in place. This gem from Spain comes courtesy of director Alberto Rodriguez, who co-wrote the story with Rafael Cobos. Cinematographer Alex Catalan also deserves much credit.
Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and Pablo (Raul Arevalo) are two police detectives thrown together to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters in a remote part of the southern country. It’s 1980, five years after the death of Franco, and the country is in the midst of political and social transition/turmoil. The two detectives are a microcosm of this transition as Juan is the old-school cop who views “physicality” as part of the interrogation process, while Pablo is next generation and believes in following the new rules of democracy and treating all with respect. Pablo, whose wife is back home in Madrid expecting their first child, is none too happy about being paired with Juan, who seems to have no real moral compass at this stage in his life and career.
When the violently abused bodies of the sisters are discovered, Juan and Pablo follow a trail of leads that take them through a mostly closed-circuit and uncooperative community … one eager to explain that those sisters had “a reputation”. The village women are all frightened to speak, the men are zealously protective of each other, and both are suspicious of outsiders. Even the Civil Guard systematically defends the old society of man-rule.
The contrast between the two polar opposite detectives, and their slow to develop meeting of minds, is more the focus here than the still quite interesting procedural work being done to investigate the murders and uncover the atrocities. This is not one of those heart-pounding, adrenaline-laced joy rides, but rather a slow-burn of police work and character development.
Aerial shots to open the film are breath-taking and included periodically throughout the film. Mr. Catalan’s work is combined with digitized versions of the work of photographer Hector Garrido to create the haunting atmosphere around an area of Spain that otherwise lacks the natural beauty we often associate with the country. This setting adds yet another layer to this mesmerizing movie-watching (for those of us who appreciate the genre).