Dogged by the memory of a schizophrenic friend who committed suicide, a young man makes all the wrong choices in “The Night Buffalo,” the latest work from the prolific Mexican novelist-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Unfortunately, the author’s tendency toward manipulative melodrama — standard in his collaborations with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros,” “Babel”) — trump his more interesting storytelling instincts, resulting in a profoundly unsatisfying drama. Diego Luna’s star billing and Arriaga’s name should give the pic a leg up for local April release and wider Latin American openings, with iffy theatrical prospects north of the border.
Onscreen title, a la Brit TV tradition, gives Arriaga possessory credit, underlining that this is an adaptation of his novel (to say nothing of his position as producer). This shouldn’t diminish the important contribution of Venezuelan-born tyro helmer and co-writer Jorge Hernandez Aldana, who must handle (with editor Alex Marquez) a story that hangs on a gaggle of flashbacks. Though in one respect crucial to the ways in which Manuel (Luna) mentally contends with the new issues in his life, the sheer volume of flashbacks ultimately burdens the film’s flow and vitality, while possibly raising more red herrings than the story can manage.
Manuel briefly reunites with buddy Gregorio (Gabriel Gonzalez), just released from a hospital for treatment of schizophrenia. That Manuel hasn’t spoken to Gregorio in some time marks the first sign all is not well between the two. Still, it’s a shock when Manuel learns the next day that Gregorio has killed himself.
Gregorio bequeaths a small curio box to Manuel, full of scribbled notes and puzzling messages that set his mind racing. He ponders not only his past experiences with Gregorio–such as his friend and he getting tattoos together — but also thinks about his g.f. Tania (Liz Gallardo), who, it emerges, was also recently in love with Gregorio. Another blood image with Tania, involving her losing her virginity with Manuel in the no-tell motel room they rent, is a visually clever device to link the three together.
A thriller plot kicks in when Manuel begins receiving mysterious mailings containing messages citing the exact notes in Gregorio’s box. Rather than assuming that he cannot only carry on with Tania, Manuel senses his life is falling apart as he’s hounded — akin to Humbert Humbert in “Lolita” — by an outside force determined to mess with him.
As the flashbacks pile up, they become repetitious, with Gregorio constantly warning Manuel about “the night buffalo” he feels is breathing on his neck while he’s asleep. Gregorio’s central, Poe-like obsession with an earwig he’s convinced has burrowed itself inside of him is scoffed at by Manuel, but the film intends to suggest that perhaps Manuel has his own “earwig” in the form of these supposedly hostile notes unsettling his relationship with Tania.
Similar to the characters in the Inarritu films, Manuel makes nothing but wrong decisions, but here, the ever stranger situations feel manipulative, and overpower audience involvement.
Luna has a chance to play younger (in flashbacks) as well as a bit older and more dangerous — including with a light beard — in the present. It’s a role that allows him more interesting choices as an actor, to be sure, than his previous Sundance film last year in the misbegotten “Solo Dios Sabe.” As Luna’s disturbed friend, Gonzalez displays and commendably underplays all of shades of sanity, from near-sanity to violent, self-mutilating madness. Gallardo’s role is much more problematic and unclear, and the thesp doesn’t seem entirely sure how to manage it.
Hernandez’ control of his medium is assured in his first feature, though he can’t help but suggest touches of Inarritu’s influence. Still, compared with such new Mexican films as “Never on a Sunday,” style and content — along with sheer commercial verve — aren’t remotely as strong. Good, slightly gritty production values are in line with current national trends.