Three intertwined stories that unfold over a single night in an isolated Croatian village add up to grim but compelling viewing in “The Reaper,” a tense, nuanced drama from helmer Zvonimir Juric (“The Blacks”). Aided by a superb, seasoned cast and stellar camerawork from Branko Linta (a prizewinner at the Pula Film Festival), Juric captures the atmosphere of volatility and despair in a place where former deeds are not easily forgotten and the recent past is still a raw wound. Festival programmers should take note.
Set in a rural part of the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, the opening scenes establish a mood of tension and dread as a lone woman leaves her stalled vehicle and walks down a dark, deserted road in the middle of the night. Juric and Linta cleverly play with audience expectations and horror-film conventions by shooting the woman, Mirjana (Mirjana Karanovic), from the back and from above.
In spite of the hour, sad-eyed, tight-lipped Ivo (Ivo Gregurevic) is at work in a cornfield, harvesting with a giant reaper. He drives the nervous woman back to her car, determines that she is out of gas, and then takes her to a petrol station. But anxiety mounts when the station attendant, Josip (Igor Kovac), noting her chauffeur, offers to drive her back himself, telling her that Ivo went to prison 20 years before for raping a woman. The way in which this revelation and its aftermath play out is superbly executed, and could serve as a master class in both cinematography and acting.
Juric continues to up the tension as Ivo slowly drives the tractor back to Mirjana’s car, making her practically ill with fear. Although he tells her not to be afraid, viewers might assume the contrary when he pockets the car keys that have fallen out of her purse.
The second story centers on Josip after he has closed the petrol station and arrives at a local bar, where he celebrates the news of his brother’s impending fatherhood. As the guests drink and grow rowdy, physical violence flares where least expected. Burly bar owner Rodic (Zlatko Buric) breaks up the quarrel and takes the distracted Josip to sit in a private room in back with a group of men who fought together in the war.
Local cop Kreso (Nikola Ristanovski), whom we first see paying a call on Ivo, turns out to be the protagonist of the third story. And it is through his eyes that we learn even more about Ivo, a man who has been defined and isolated by his crime, just as the region in which he lives is still trapped in the thrall of the war.
Juric and co-screenwriter Jelena Paljan underscore the theme of being trapped and not able to move forward in numerous ways. From the lonely Ivo, who is practically deprived of human contact to the ruined men who sit and drink with Radic, the aftermath of the war and its concurrent dark deeds are omnipresent if rarely spoken of. Barely repressed, this unsavory past lingers like the holes in the floor which Kreso’s beautiful wife, Ana (Lana Baric), covers with a carpet, or the sad time capsule of a room at the factory farm where Ivo lives.
Iconic thesps Gregurevic and Karanovic do some of the best work of their careers, while younger-generation performer Kovac makes the most of a key part. (Gregurevic and Kovac both won acting prizes at Pula.) The evocative tech package is aces in every respect, with Jura Ferina and Pavao Miholjevic’s melancholy score and Julij Zornik’s sound design especially worthy of mention.