A young doctor falls for an ambulance chaser with a distorted moral code in Pablo Trapero’s “Carancho,” a distinctly minor film noir with a sense of the convention’s formula but not its elements. Trapero’s genre versatility (“Lion’s Den,” “Rolling Family”) is a commendable commodity in arthouse circles, but here he’s lost his way, tripped up by an unexceptional script and the kind of mood-killing artificial spot lighting more often seen on TV dramas than widescreen thrillers. Strong B.O. in native Argentina is unlikely to be mirrored outside South America, though Latino-centric fests will swoop in.
This is noir with a message: Argentina’s vehicular accident rate is sky high, providing fertile ground for shyster lawyers and insurance agents scamming unsophisticated victims. “Carancho” is a vulture-like bird of prey (“caracara” in English), making it a pertinent metaphor for these sorts of lowlifes. At first, Sosa (Ricardo Darin) appears to be a largely decent, down-on-his-luck type working as an ambulance chaser until he can get his law license back (it’s never revealed how he lost it).
He meets Lujan (Martina Gusman, from “Lion’s Den”) at the scene of an accident and uses persistence and charm to break through the cool-headed, overworked doctor’s resistance. It looks like the start of a nice affair, but when Sosa stages an accident so a friend can claim the insurance, things begin to turn dark indeed.
In classic noir fashion, the pic upends expectations of ethical conduct: The initial positive perception of Lujan is perverted not only by a revealed drug habit but by her return to the increasingly tainted Sosa. Events quickly spin out of control when he attempts to do right by some clients, which means crossing his sleazeball former employers, leading to escalating tit-for-tat assaults.
“Carancho” ratchets up the violence (the final scene is meant to shock, though it’s just as likely to cause eye rolls or titters) without making auds especially interested in what happens. Neither sympathetically flawed nor deliciously wicked, Sosa and Lujan merely trade intelligence for desperation; though both Darin (“The Secret in Their Eyes”) and Gusman do their best to create fully fleshed characters, the script forces them to rely on their fine extratextual instincts.
The most glaring problem is Trapero’s inability to wed storyline to tone. It’s not simply that he shot on 4K digital (though the format’s cold, harsh crispness, unsoftened by the transfer to 35mm, feels out of place), but he’s traded in noir’s world of expressive shadows for generic visuals (scenes in a hospital look more like a smallscreen medical drama than “The Sleeping City”). Though largely shot at night, Julian Apezteguia’s lensing fails to utilize the dark hours’ unsettling qualities.