The Scheherazade-like cleverness, bullet-proof plot and edgy dynamics of psychothriller “Killing Words” combine to give the well-worn serial-killer genre a fresh slant. Far different from helmer Laura Mana’s debut — the 1999 B&W feminist parable “Compassionate Sex” — film is a typically bold attempt at mainstream from prolific prodco Filmax, and decent home B.O. is assured. Sales are reportedly under way to several non-Hispanic territories, and “Words” should generate buzz in more. Storyline’s universal appeal suggests English-language remake potential.
Pic’s claustrophobic atmosphere is established early: Much of the action takes place in a large basement set up as a killing ground by 42-year-old philosophy prof Ramon (Argentinean thesp Dario Grandinetti, from “Talk to Her”). He records his thoughts on video, revealing he’s killed a woman that morning. Psychiatrist Laura (Goya Toledo), bound to a chair, watches the vid in terror as Ramon circles her.
Ramon suggests they play a word-chain game. If she wins, she goes free; if he wins, he will scoop out one of her eyes with a spoon.
The stakes steadily rise, and when Laura wins a round, she gets to make a phone call. The number she gives Ramon is his mother’s: Laura, it transpires, is Ramon’s ex-wife, and he’s exacting revenge for the lies he believes she told about him during their divorce. However, when he shows her a video recounting his murder of a child, Laura spots an inconsistency, and the balance of power shifts.
In the first of many shuttles between the basement and the outside world, Ramon is arrested by veteran cop Espinosa (Fernando Guillen) and his young, aggressive sidekick, inspector Sanchez (Eric Bonicatto), and interrogated about Laura’s disappearance. Now it’s Ramon who has to use his wits to talk his way out of a situation. The ambiguities between whether or not the whole kidnapping is a set-up generates most of the narrative interest from hereon in. Final 20 minutes throw in enough twists to keep a rattlesnake happy, and things start to look a little contrived, but by then pic has earned its dramatic keep.
On one level, script is about the power of storytelling to play games with the facts. The idea is mostly intelligently handled and, apart from one brief rape scene — cleverly staged so that Ramon, not Laura, looks like the loser — the violence is purely psychological. There are, however, occasional false steps: Laura’s attempts later on to explain Ramon’s troubled psychology by referring to his mother feels false.
Grandinetti’s powerful screen presence dominates things, and he’s particularly good during the cop interrogation scenes as a man holding it together under pressure. Toledo (“Amores Perros”) has the charisma to bring tension to the Laura/Ramon face-offs, and helmer Mana is careful never simply to present Laura as a victim.
Lenser Xavier Jimenez, who won the best photography award at the recent Malaga fest for his work here, makes the most of the tight spaces available in the basement and police station. Images are glossy, shadows are sharp, angles are daring and there’s often a subtle power of suggestion at work in the color: The deep red of Laura’s dress could be a visual prelude to the blood she may soon be covered in. Music is appropriately discreet, and subtitling of the word-chain sections is excellent.