At a nervily compact 74 minutes, “A Monster With a Thousand Heads” often feels as if it’s unfolding in real time — even as necessary narrative logistics dictate otherwise. Such is the considerable achievement of Uruguayan-Mexican helmer Rodrigo Pla’s agitated, on-the-move hostage thriller, in which the wife of an ailing man resorts to brutally desperate measures against the insurance company refusing to fund his treatment. Tempering the strong medicine of its social-justice protestations with a streak of outlandish melodrama, this “Monster” may not have quite as many facets as its title implies, but Pla’s formally deft manipulation of perspective keeps the pic both urgent and even-handed. This year’s Venice Horizons opener will be popular with festival programmers, and may pack enough genre punch for modest international distribution.
For Pla, whose more contemplative previous feature, “The Delay,” was Uruguay’s 2012 Oscar submission, “A Monster With a Thousand Heads” marks a return not just to Mexico, but also to the tight tension-exercise territory of his much-garlanded 2007 debut, “The Zone.” If that film seemed primed for an English-lingo remake that never materialized, Pla’s latest would similarly be persuasive in any language — with its heated commentary on the corruption-riddled health insurance industry particularly salient to U.S. auds, as Obamacare continues to inspire discussion and debate. In a Hollywood context, on the other hand, its story could prompt ugly flashbacks to Nick Cassavetes’ turgid 2002 hospital-siege drama, “John Q.” Pla’s film, happily, is an altogether smarter, tarter affair.
In a lengthy opening shot that establishes both the anxious tone of proceedings and the cool impartiality of d.p. Odei Zabaleta’s camera, middle-aged protagonist Sonia (the excellent, tremulously expressive Jana Raluy) is awoken in the middle of the night when her terminally ill husband, Guillermo, falls out of bed following a severe surge of pain. Despite Guillermo’s frail condition, their insurance company refuses to fund the pricey new treatment required to survive.
There are scant specifics in the screenplay by Pla’s regular collaborator Laura Santullo, drawn from her novel; defining the family’s situation in the most general terms possible highlights the interchangeable typicality of such cases within the system. Guillermo’s face is barely grazed by the camera, while we gain little sense of Sonia’s professional or social life. (As the film unfurls, viewers may begin to pick up the offhand class signifiers in many a frame, often courtesy of Barbara Enriquez and Alejandro Garcia’s neutral-toned production design.) If these characters are mere numbers to their insurers, we are granted only mildly more intimate access to their lives, as Santullo’s script effectively warns us against deeming their plight exceptional.
Sonia is not so willing to stand down and be discounted. After being given the runaround by administrators who refuse to answer her queries — in a sequence depicting positively “Brazil”-ian levels of bureaucratic illogic, where the pic’s bitter comic edge is first revealed — she snaps in disconcerting fashion. First attacking a wilfully unhelpful secretary, she proceeds to chase down Dr. Villalba (Hugo Albores), the medic surveying her husband’s case, with her mortified teenage son Dario (Sebastian Aguirre Boeda) in tow and a semi-automatic stashed heedlessly in her handbag. When Villalba professes that his hands are tied, a chain of confrontations ensues with progressively more complicit insurance-company employees.
To describe the escalation of conflict any further would be to spoil the film’s efficiently ratcheted suspense, as it hurtles toward a panicked, genuinely alarming climax. The outcome of the crisis is teased throughout through voiceover testimonies from a future court case, with the viewpoints of unassociated witnesses sometimes subtly clashing with those of the principals. It’s a potentially intriguing but incompletely realized narrative device that the film doesn’t really need. Sonia herself is such a compellingly contradictory welter of impulses and motivations — veering from the irrationally violent to the intuitively protective — that auds are already likely to view her actions at some remove, however sympathetic her fundamental dilemma and however forceful the impact of Raluy’s precarious, unpredictable performance. No party emerges undamaged or unsullied in this one-against-the-system tale.
When the script isn’t forcing the point, Zabaleta’s remarkable widescreen lensing makes it more subtly, artfully varying focus and depth of field to show us both Sonia’s guarded window on the world and the ways in which others see (or, in several cases, overlook) her. (A cryptic postscript, meanwhile, surrenders the film’s view to a more coldly objective authority entirely.) Miguel Schverdfinger’s editing does a stringently disciplined job of juggling these multiple reversals of perspective within a brief, fat-free running time. Perhaps the pic’s most impressive below-the-line contribution, however, is the bustling, fretful soundscape constructed by Axel Munoz and Alejandro de Icaza, one in which every innocuous cell-phone jangle or blaring car radio serves as a more abrasive siren to its agonized heroine.