A spare, psychological study of a traumatized security guard holding onto his sanity by a soon-to-be-broken thread, the quietly intriguing “Half of Oscar” is composed of empty spaces and silences behind which lie a terrible tension. Repping an artistic U-turn by helmer Manuel Martin Cuenca from 2005’s busy criss-crosser “Hard Times,” pic is emotionally chilly, and though it’s undeniably accomplished, visually striking and superbly played by Rodrigo Saenz de Heredia as its tightly-wound protag, it ultimately plays as too leisurely and detached for all but fest auds, with offshore arthouse play a possibility.
Obviously haunted by something, Oscar (Saenz de Heredia) is a security guard in a semi-abandoned salt plain in Almeria in southern Spain. His life is sublimely monotonous: each day he has lunch with former guard Miguel (Manuel Martinez Roca), with whom he exchanges monosyllabic conversation, before taking the bus to the hospice where he reads the newspaper to his bedridden grandfather (Salvador Gavilan Ramos).
Oscar then goes home, listens to an answering machine on which there are never any messages, and ominously cleans a gun. Occasionally he visits a woman with whom he has silent sex, though it’s hard to imagine him ever having been capable of seducing her.
The routine changes when his grandfather is transferred to a hospital. Oscar’s sister, lively Maria (Veronica Echegui) arrives from Paris, accompanied by French boyfriend Jean (Denis Eyriey) who, it quickly becomes clear, is there to protect Maria from her sibling. To Oscar’s chagrin, they stay in a hotel. Sister and brother appear to know practically nothing about one another — some dark family secrets are hinted at — but at the same time the two seem closely bound.
The answers to the multiple questions raised by Oscar’s unenviable lifestyle are too long coming, and are finally resolved via a brief snatch of dialogue: Miss this, and you miss the entire point of the pic. The death of his grandfather and the return of Maria to Paris leave Oscar even more dangerously untethered than he was before.
The script hints at much but tells little, as though not only half of Oscar, but half the pic itself is missing. A tense, 10-minute cliff walk taken by Oscar, Maria and Jean is the pic’s beautifully done centerpiece: Not a word is audible, but by the end of it, the three of them having separated, the viewer’s nerves are in shreds about who might have done what to whom.
Though there is a world of pain inside Oscar, the script and style ensure the viewer never gets to feel any of it. His retreat into himself makes him hermetic not only to his sister, but also to the audience, and despite Saenz de Heredia’s skill in fusing dullness and danger into an unsettling whole, there’s only so much dramatic mileage to be had from watching a man thinking disturbed thoughts.
The screen-friendly Echegui has tended to play wordy, nervous teen roles until now, so portraying Maria reps a change for her that she handles well. Eyriey’s Jean brings little to the pic apart from the threadbare theme of the lack of communication.
Soundwork is terrific, the lack of music leaving the way clear for a range of aural effects that augment the air of suspense: Moments of crisis, for example, are accompanied by a vague industrial hum.
Visually, it’s all lengthy, static shots — practically no camera movement and interiors framed with loving care and lensed with an eye for detail by Rafael de la Uz. But it’s the bleak expanses of Almeria, caught in a chilly winter light, that remain longest in the memory. Indeed, the pic reps a radically new take on a part of Spain that is too often shown by filmmakers to be all folklore and flamenco.