The elemental power of Argentina’s Mendoza foothills and the struggle of juvenile delinquents on the lam can’t compensate for an obvious story structure and overcooked symbolism in Alejandro Fadel’s writing-directing debut, “The Wild Ones.” Divided into two halves — starting with the flight of a quintet of youths from prison, followed by the group’s dissolution — the pic establishes seemingly strong, even grand, setpieces that go nowhere, indicating a filmmaker of considerable technical abilities falling short in the scripting department. Fabulous look and settings will help the pic go far on the fest circuit, starting with Buenos Aires and Cannes Critics’ Week berths.
The action launches immediately and furiously, without character intros, as five teens break out of a juvie facility, killing some guards in the process. Group leader Gaucho (Leonel Arancibia) promises a seven-day hike on foot to his godfather’s home, and the brisk eight-minute prelude is followed by a more languorous pace (care of editors Andres P. Estrada and Delfina Castagnino).
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Once on the trail, the pic’s apparent intentions to delineate the various characters never crystallize beyond Gaucho’s bullheaded determination to lead and control the group, while Demian (Roberto Cowal) increasingly resists what he thinks is Gaucho’s incompetence — a notion the movie hasn’t taken the time to sufficiently develop.
At night, Gaucho tries to fill the heads of his addled, glue-sniffing compadres with campfire tales of the bones of the dead, while the sounds of wild boar rustle in the nearby bushes. Although he’s the youngster in the group, Gaucho’s brother, Simon (Cesar Roldan), is the one who finds needed water; he tends to function quietly and apart from the rest, while Gaucho and g.f. Grace (Sofia Brito) enjoy a tryst.
Fadel tries in vain to wrestle some meaning out of a situation centered around young people who lack any kind of compass, literal or moral; their cold-blooded murder of a farmer is presented without feeling or resonance. One by one, each of the five begins to peel off from the movie’s center, leading to a final 20-minute-plus stretch burdened with repetitive action. At nearly two hours and 15 minutes, this is a project in need of a severe trim, which would go a long way toward increasing tension.
“The Wild Ones” cribs from Terrence Malick and Carlos Reygadas, with whole passages playing like elaborate quotations from one or the other director. But the suggestion of a terrible family tragedy is strangely muted rather than explored, fitting a general pattern of underdeveloped dramatic ideas and tendentious symbolism that at one point tilts over into art-cinema parody.
The only actors in the ensemble who make more than a skin-deep impression are Arancibia as the Alpha-male bro, and Roldan as his humbler but more disturbed sibling. The real star here is cinematographer Julian Apezteguia (a lenser for such Argentine auteurs as Adrian Caetano, Pablo Trapero, Carlos Sorin and Ana Katz), who deploys a striking range of long shots and closeups in widescreen frames pulsating with autumnal light, shadow and palpable menace; this is matched by a rumbling, disturbing score full of deep bass booms by brothers Sergio and Santiago Chotsourian. As striking as the Mendoza settings are, there’s a certain sameness to the landscapes after a while that contradicts the sense that the characters are traveling a long distance.