The world of Arturo Ripstein’s films is a sordid place of tormented souls, shifting morality, violent acts, absurdity and wretchedness. That world is brought amusingly to life in “The Ruination of Men,” an overlong but charmingly corrosive black comedy about two killers, their victim, two rival wives and a fatal baseball match. Expanded by the veteran Mexican director from a previously made short film, this eccentric curio is written in a richly enjoyable literary style and performed with effortless panache. Simply made and shot in black-and-white, it should represent a tasty nugget for fest programmers and a worthy challenge to specialized niche distributors.
Premiered in San Sebastian, the film won the Golden Shell for best film (Ripstein’s second after “Principio y fin” in 1993), the Fipresci international critics’ prize and, perhaps most deservedly, the jury award for best screenplay, penned by the director’s wife and regular collaborator, Paz Alicia Garciadiego.
Taking its title from a Mexican song about women as the undoing of men, the tale is divided into four long scenes and opens with a clumsily executed murder. The killers (Rafael Inclan, Luis Felipe Tovar) ambush their victim (Carlos Chavez) on a country road, brain him with a rock and then load him into his wheelbarrow to remove the body. Action then shifts to a run-down police station, where the bigamous victim’s wives air their long list of grievances against their dead husband.
After much bickering and lobbying for precedence based on the number and age of their children, the wives flip a coin for possession of the body. Having shared him in life, they refuse to share him in death, but the winner (redoubtable Ripstein regular Patricia Reyes Spindola) immediately feels duped by the other into covering the funeral costs.
Built around the embittered ranting of Reyes Spindola’s character, often using the woman’s Nintendo-fixated daughter as an indifferent sounding board, this section provides the most consistent pleasures of this drolly wicked comedy. It veers into sheer perverseness when the wife enlists one of her husband’s killers to help her transport the body back home. Recognizing her dear departed’s snakeskin boots on the man, she overpowers him with a baseball bat, reclaims the shoes and humiliates him into sucking her toes while her appalled daughter looks on.
Having set up the killing to appear motivated by the victim’s vanity and bigamy, Ripstein and Garciadiego then mischievously reveal the real reason as they backtrack to chronicle events earlier in the day of the murder, when the two killers and their victim played together on a too-frequently defeated baseball team. Ironic commentary on the action of this last act is supplied by the mellifluous voice of a radio broadcaster.
Set up in long takes, shot in an unfussy style with handheld camera and structured as a series of monologues or two-character dialogues, the film is driven more by its complex, playful text than anything else. Perhaps betraying its origins as a short, it feels overextended and is far more successful as a bizarre folk tale full of surprises than as a full-bodied cinematic work. But the bracing originality, the director’s self-effacing approach, the lazy verve of the cast and the anarchic absurdity of the humor — Ripstein acknowledges an evident debt to Luis Bunuel, who himself worked extensively in Mexico — make this a uniquely entertaining experience.