Judith Regan

A nihilistic high-art film marked by fashionable static takes, banal minimalist dialogue, glacial pacing and ultra-violence.

A nihilistic high-art film marked by fashionable static takes, banal minimalist dialogue, glacial pacing and ultra-violence, “The Bastards” will attract support from the usual suspects in the critical community. Like Mexican helmer Amat Escalante’s 2005 Un Certain Regard entry “Sangre,” this Southern California-lensed drama consists of long stretches of dreary quotidian activity shrouded in dread due to something very bad you know is coming, all in the interests of presenting a rigorously reductive slice of earthly hell. Enthusiasm in certain quarters ensures an extensive fest life and likely limited release in select sophisticated markets internationally, but pic’s commercial prospects remain similar to those always faced by the director’s mentor and co-producer, Carlos Reygadas.

From the bold opening credits, the simplicity of his conceptions, the stripped-down refinement of his widescreen framing and the rich sound mix, it’s clear Escalante possess a strong talent. What he does with it is another matter. Because the plot, such as it is, concerns two presumed Mexican illegals scrounging for money in the United States, one can’t help but carry in an assumption that the film will express some views on the subject, however implicit.

Opening stretch, set in dully anonymous suburban areas, matter-of-factly presents a group of Mexicans, including tough, uncommunicative Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) and younger, sullen Fausto (Ruben Sosa), waiting by the road to be hired for day labor. After digging a ditch all day, Jesus and Fausto have an unpleasant brush with some rednecks in a park and relax before undertaking their big job for the day — a hired killing of a woman.

The worst cliches about Mexicans are furthered by the guys front and center here: Jesus looks like a prison-hardened hombre who’d rather stare you down than talk to you, and the resentful Fausto serves up repeated slurs against gringos. When Jesus pulls his compact shotgun out of his backpack, the negative portrait is complete.

But the film is prepared to balance this with equal-opportunity caricaturing of Americans as anesthetized zombies. In a small home, a mother, Karen (Nina Zavarin), prepares and eats dinner with her teenage son, an electronic music fanatic who will barely speak to her and quickly takes off into the night. Having accused him of doing drugs, Karen, once alone, indulges in a private stash herself and promptly passes out, only to be awakened by the intruding Mexicans.

Therepon follows a sort of slow-motion version of “Funny Games” in which the armed Jesus and Fausto are served dinner by the woman, take a swim, do drugs, indulge in distinctly uninspiring hanky-panky and otherwise hang out in a benumbed state with Karen, who intuits they’ve been hired by her unseen husband. Apparently too stoned to move quickly, she has numerous opportunities to try to escape or grab the gun but fails to act.

Eventual inevitable violence contains a couple of surprise elements and, because the resultant images are held so long and are so dreadful to behold, cannot help but deliver an indelible impression. If there is a director who’s had a decisive influence on Escalante other than Reygadas, it has to be French helmer Bruno Dumont, a pioneer of pregnant imagery and arty in-your-face savagery.

Psychological, political and sociological considerations are beside the point here, as the only perspective conveyed by the film is money has trumped everything else, including morality, as the driving force in modern life.

The film looks and sounds very impressive.

The Bastards

Mexico

Production

A Mantarraya, Tres Tunas, Nodream Cinema production. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Jaime Romandia, in association with Carlos Reygadas. Directed by Amat Escalante. Screenplay, Escalante, Martin Escalante.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Matt Uhry; editors, Ayhan Ergursel, Amat Escalante; production designer, Gabriel Abraham; art directors, Daniela Schneider, Zumrut Cavusoglu; sound (Dolby Digital), Raul Locatelli; sound designer, Alejandro de Icaza. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 20, 2008. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Jesus - Jesus Moises Rodriguez Fausto - Ruben Sosa Karen - Nina Zavarin Anglo Man - Kenny Johnston

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