Most of the time, cinematic evil is pretty flashy, memorable and, let’s face it, kinda cool: it’s the Bond super-villain plotting the world’s destruction from the comfort of his high-tech, fortified island estate…the suave, dastardly mustache-twirler butting heads with the hardy hero…the badass monster with acid for blood and a hankering for humans…the evil genius who’s constantly building killer robots, turning people into zombies and infecting the water supply with some sort of designer mega-virus. Take a minute to think about which characters in any Nightmare on Elm Street film are more interesting: the bland, anonymous victims or wise-crackin’, ultra-cool Freddy? Evil may be something to overcome (most of the time) but that doesn’t mean it can’t be gussied up with some sweet duds and an enviable haircut.
In the real world, however, true evil is rarely as “cool” as movies make it out to be. In fact, true evil, for the most part, is exceptionally banal: it’s the bureaucrat moving “casualties” from one column to the next…the terrorist who kills based on dogma…the egomaniacal dictator who rules by virtue of having the most guns, not the best plan…the bored thrill-seekers just looking for something to do…the bullies who indiscriminately target the weak in an effort to make someone’s, anyone’s life more miserable than their own…the fat cats who relentlessly pad their own wallets at the expense of those around them…the companies dumping pollutants into the water and air. Real evil, for the most part, is boring, beige. True evil is also all but impossible to eradicate: you may be able to send in Rambo or Jason Bourne to take care of the cinematic baddies but it doesn’t work quite like that in the real world. Most of us are in no position to eliminate the day-to-day evils of the world: evil, like good, is just a fact of life.
Alejandro Fernández Almendras’ To Kill a Man (2014), which the Chilean director also wrote and edited, takes us right into the thick of real evil, showcasing the casual cruelty, misanthropy and harassment that often leads to violence, heart-break and death. There are no heroes here, just a desperate, broken-down father who tries (and fails) to protect his family. There are no super-villains, either, no suave harbingers of cool chaos for us to vicariously live through: the evil in To Kill a Man is earth-bound, sweaty, stupid and ugly, the product of generations of degradation, not a special serum or radioactive infection. There is nothing rousing, fist-raising or “epic” about the fight between good and evil in Almendras’ film: this is real evil, in all of its slouching, misshapen glory. There are no happy endings here because, in the real world, evil is seldom vanquished: it simply returns to the soil, like so much rot, in order to spring anew elsewhere. By removing feel-good notions of cosmic justice and the supposed balance between good and evil, Almendras lifts up the rock that is our world and let the hidden things spill out into the light: in the process, he creates one of the most powerful, tense and unpleasant films of the year, a funeral dirge for our modern age.
The protagonist of our little film, Jorge (Daniel Candia), is a mild-mannered forest ranger, father of two and loving husband. He’s soft-spoken, diabetic, gets his family whatever they want at the drop of a hat and seems like a genuinely nice guy. As with Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974), however, this is not the kind of world for a meek, kind-hearted push-over: this is the jungle and the weaker animals are always prey for the stronger. In this case, the stronger animal is one Luis Alberto Alamos Alamos (Daniel Antivilo), also known as Kalule. Kalule and his gang of reprobates have recently taken over a small park in Jorge’s neighborhood and currently “rule” with an iron fist. No one is safe from their harassment, petty larceny and thuggish violence: think a meaner, stupider and crasser version of Alex’s droogs and you’ve on the right track.
One night, while passing through the park on his way home from work, Jorge happens to run afoul of Kalule and his “boys.” At first, the thugs just harass the poor guy, kicking a soccer ball at him, calling him names and cheerfully menacing him. When Jorge is forced to go back through the park later, however, in order to buy his son, Jorge (Ariel Mateluna) and his friends some beer, his second meeting with the gang isn’t quite as “pleasant.” The creeps surround Jorge, push him around and snatch his wallet, taking what they want and throwing the rest into the dirt. The scene is terrible and humiliating, with Jorge as defenseless as a small child, despite his status as patriarch of his household. To add insult to injury, Kalule refuses to take Jorge’s credit card (“I’d probably have to pay your bill,” he laughs) but does take the expensive blood tester that Jorge needs to help control his diabetes.
When Jorge gets home, he’s too devastated to even look his family in the eyes. His wife, Marta (Alejandra Yañez), and daughter, Nicole (Jennifer Salas), seem mortified and his son is pissed off and ready for action: he wants his dad to give him 5000 pesos so that he can go to the gang and, at the very least, negotiate the return of his dad’s tester. Jorge tells him to drop it which, of course, has the opposite desired effect: young Jorge sneaks out while his parents sleep and attempts to get his dad’s stuff back. When he finds out, Jorge rushes after his son, only to get to his side right after Kalule has shot him. While he watches, Kalule calmly shoots himself and then calls the police, claiming that Jorge’s son attacked him and he only shot in self-defense.
At the trial, Kalule continues to plead his innocence, even as he accepts a plea deal that would put him in prison for 1.5 years. Jorge’s family, for their part, is heartbroken: young Jorge has survived but his injuries have put an end to his schooling, dooming him to the same sort of lower-class life as his parents. Marta, meanwhile, has never stopped blaming Jorge for their son’s injury and the couple have since divorced, with the kids staying with their mother and Jorge taking up residence in a flea-bag motel. Faster than you can say “Cape Fear (1991),” however, Kalule is out of jail and looking to even the score with Jorge and his family. The thug begins a campaign of terror and harassment against the family that includes obscene phone calls, throwing rocks at their house and stalking young Nicole everywhere she goes. The police, so unhelpful during the original crime, are just as unhelpful now: regardless of how many complaints the family lodges, how many protection orders they get or how much they try to avoid Kalule and his gang, the authorities merely shrug their shoulders, leaving the family completely on their own.
As the pressure begins to wear on him, Jorge finds himself changing in subtle ways. After a confrontation with an asshole in the forest ends with Jorge chasing him off with a shotgun, however, the beleaguered father begins to feel empowered, if only ever so slightly. After Kalule and his men commit a shocking, vile and humiliating act against his daughter, however, Jorge finds himself at a crossroads: will he be able to continue taking the “high road,” hoping that the police will eventually do their job, or will he take matters into his own hands and try to make his own version of “justice?” When he finally does make a choice, Jorge’s decision will have a terrible, lasting impact on all those around him: there are no winners, here, only various shades of losers and wrecked human beings.
Lean, mean and consistently down-trodden, To Kill a Man is one of the finest examples of “feel bad” cinema I’ve seen in some time. Everything about the film is calculatedly to make the viewer feel as tense and uncomfortable as possible: the ominous score, all deep-voiced wind instruments and droning, low tones crawls under your skin and stays there…the violence, when it happens, is sudden, shocking and all-too realistic…the gang seem all-powerful and absolutely immoral, lending the film an overriding sense of futility…in every way possible, To Kill a Man is the epitome of a stacked deck.
Jorge, as portrayed by Candia, is a sympathetic, yet largely pathetic, character, a man who wants to believe in some notion of balance and justice yet keeps getting kicked in the nuts by the universe at every turn. Yañez, for her part, serves as surrogate for anyone taking the view that bullies need to be stood up to: the scene where Marta sneers at Jorge and warns him to beware of “mean kids in the park” is a real heart-breaker, since it just reinforces the notion that Jorge was too weak and not “masculine enough” to protect his family. We witness young Jorge go from the traditionally supportive son to a bitter, jaded shell of a man who holds his father in the same contempt that his mother does. And poor Nicole, so hopeful and positive, is absolutely destroyed by the violence and misogyny that swirls around her like a toxic cloud. This isn’t a family so much as three horses which, along with Kalule, are striving to pull Jorge to pieces.
While the acting is consistently strong and nicely understated, the cinematography, courtesy of Inti Briones, is a real thing of beauty. Time after time, Briones comes up with some truly gorgeous images: the shot of an automatic door slowly closing, only to stop midway, works on a number of levels, as does the awesome shot of Jorge’s truck disappearing backwards into the night, its wan headlights gradually swallowed in the same manner as Jorge’s rapidly dwindling humanity. The sense of framing is exquisite and the frequent close-ups, shot from odd angles, keep the constantly shifting power relationships as off-kilter as possible. As difficult as To Kill a Man is to sit through, content-wise, the film always looks and sounds amazing, a razor blade wrapped in a candy shell.
Ultimately, I was pretty blown away by Almendras’ film: while I’ve never been the biggest fan of what I like to call “hopeless cinema,” it’s impossible to deny the raw power of To Kill a Man. In many ways, the film is a modern successor to Death Wish, a searing, jagged examination of the destructive power of vengeance and what it means to be a “protector” in these violent times. While Jorge’s measured march to his own annihilation is painful to watch, it’s the kind of pain that any cinephile should force themselves to endure. At its core, To Kill a Man peels back humanity’s skin, revealing the coal-black heart that beats beneath. You may not necessarily “enjoy” the film but truth, like life, is often painful. Sometimes, you need that pain to appreciate everything else. Sometimes, that’s all there is.