A couple of mismatched cops in the immediate post-Franco era investigate the brutal murders of two teenage girls in Alberto Rodriguez’s satisfyingly atmospheric neo-noir, “Marshland.” Steeped in a brooding transitional world of distrust, perversion, and disillusionment, this stylish thriller from the director of “Unit 7” superbly captures its milieu, yet ultimately isn’t on top of its narrative, which disappoints in the denouement and leaves too many questions unanswered. Bold, award-winning visuals from d.p. Alex Catalan and charismatic leads paper over most of the holes, but lingering frustration over plot points could hinder the film’s international success. Local play should be strong, and a pan-European release is certainly possible.
Mesmerizing satellite images of the wetlands around the Guadalquivir River in Spain’s deep south set the tone for something destabilizing, the land-mass patterns resembling a color-dyed brain membrane slice under a microscope. The time is September 1980, five years after Franco’s death, and a moment of deep political volatility. Investigators Pedro (Raul Arevalo) and Juan (Javier Gutierrez) arrive at night in a backwater town amid the rice paddies, during the annual fair. The region is a Franco stronghold: Pedro is disgusted to find a cross with photos of Hitler and the Generalissimo on his hotel room wall, though Juan’s not so bothered.
The two are polar opposites: Pedro is of the new generation, left-wing, honest and determined to be a part of a reformed police force. His wife back in Madrid is pregnant, and he’s keen to get back home. Juan, on the other hand, is showily unattached, a cop of the old school quick to pummel an uncooperative witness or genially liquor up possible sources of information. Pedro’s not pleased that he’s been paired with the older detective, especially after being told his new partner regularly shakes down hookers and bar owners.
They’re in town investigating the disappearance of teenage sisters Estrella and Carmen, missing for three days. Their angry father, Rodrigo (Antonio de la Torre), offers no support, while their mother, Rocio (Nerea Barros), displays all the signs of an abused wife. When Rodrigo’s back is turned, she gives the cops a letter the girls received, containing a semi-burned negative strip with pornographic shots of the sisters. Later, the girls’ bodies are found naked, sodomized and mutilated in a ditch.
Two other unsolved disappearances bear a striking resemblance, and it turns out that all the young women were connected to local stud Quini (Jesus Castro, “El Nino”). Quini’s arrogance is provoking, but his DNA doesn’t match that of the semen found on the bodies. Still, his predilection for teen girls is troubling, and his relationship with the sisters’ peer Marina (Ana Tomeno) sends up red flags, especially when the detectives realize there’s someone else joining their rendezvous in an isolated hunting lodge.
Various leitmotifs run through “Marshland,” adding to the unsettled atmosphere. All the young woman yearn to move out of this godforsaken corner, making them especially vulnerable to promises of employment elsewhere. In addition, labor unrest forms a constant background element, adding to the sense of deep societal instability that makes the air ripe for exploitation and sadism. The problem is that, too often, Rodriguez lavishes more attention on mood than character: A disillusioned sleazy journalist (Manolo Solo) is just a stereotype, and the local factory owner, sketchily drawn, is too easy a villain. A drug-running subtheme doesn’t go anywhere; nor does the red-herring psychic who temporarily threatens to turn the pic into a Spanish “Angel Heart.”
Far better is the uneasy relationship between Pedro and Juan. As the investigation progresses, Pedro’s intensity flares into sudden violence, akin to Juan’s well-trained, almost blase recourse to brutality. Juan’s behavior is tied to his years as a cop under the Franco regime, but Pedro’s darkness, while partly stemming from his intolerance for the dictatorship, is also infected by the fascist society he grew up in, and escaping its legacy inside himself isn’t so easy.
As Pedro, Arevalo’s brooding is perhaps taken just a bit too far, though it acts as a good counterpoint to Juan’s mysterious calm assurance, masking a deep unpleasantness; no doubt it’s this shading that led to Gutierrez winning the best actor prize in San Sebastian. The fest also awarded Catalan’s superb cinematography, capturing in menacing detail the disquieting landscape of the delta. From a heart-racing nighttime car chase to torrential evening downpours, visuals and editing combine to coax out all the disconcerting elements of the region, trapped by the past’s inescapable corruption.