Two brothers flee a determined cop, clattering down an anonymous stairwell in an apartment complex. A bickering family sets out on a long road trip to the coast. Neither party will get much further: The stairwell and road are apparently infinite loops in time and space. In “The Incident,” Mexican scripter-helmer Isaac Ezban crafts a Spanish-lingo sci-fi thriller that grips from the outset, though a certain proportion of the suspense is generated by the question of whether he can possibly sustain the high-wire act required to flesh out an arresting but limited setup. He largely succeeds, thanks in part to shrewd production design: While a photograph may be worth a thousand words, nothing says passage of time like a thousand bottles of urine.
Let’s do the time warp again: “The Incident” is an elevated genre diversion that rewards a re-watch, or at least close attention paid to every image. The pic opens on a closeup of an endlessly scrolling escalator, one of many such images suggesting repetition and looping. An ancient woman in a bridal gown lies on the escalator with the thousand-yard stare of one who has forgotten what hope is. When we meet her again in the closing reel, we’ll understand why.
This senescent bride bookends the picture, but the meat of the narrative is contained in two parallel stories. In the first thread, we meet two brothers (Fernando Alvarez Rebeil and Humberto Busto) evoking minor Tarantino hoodlums: desperate, terrified, arguing about debt in an apartment in Mexico. This impression is confirmed when a detective (Raul Mendez, familiar to Netflix auds from “Narcos” and “Sense8”) attempts to arrest them; panicked, they run for it. This could be the start of a very different film, but during the ensuing chase, something odd happens: No matter how many flights of stairs they descend, floor one always leads down to floor nine and the stairwell begins again. Baffled, they reverse course. Same deal: Floor nine leads up to one.
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In the second strand, a fractious family is heading off on vacation. Tense squabbles about leaving late and who should remember to bring what are a staple of such domestic scenes. Having been prepped by the stairwell story, however, the audience is already on red alert — clocking the repeating stretch of road before the characters do, somewhat sadistically luxuriating in watching them figure it out. It’s an existential scenario, but it also owes a lot of its success to horror tropes that depend on viewers knowing more than the people onscreen.
It’s regrettable that both sets of stories begin with their characters so emotionally worked up, even before they get stuck in a temporal nightmare; it doesn’t give the actors anywhere much to go, beyond growing ever more hysterical. In “Groundhog Day,” the protag’s varied reactions to each repeated 24-hour cycle draw power from our sense of him as a seen-it-all-before misanthrope; it’s fun to see him immersed in an environment where he really has seen it all before. In “The Incident,” the concept is the star, especially when we revisit both parties after 35 years trapped in the same space.
That 35-year jump is one of the film’s great coups. Rules have been established during the first half regarding what gets renewed and what exists in linear time, but it’s still a piquant reveal when we see what that means in practice. Production designer Adelle Achar has a field day imagining the consequences, especially in the stairway location: Crazed graffiti covers the walls; bottles of excreta are piled in mini-mountains on each mezzanine; the skeleton of one of the unlucky trio dangles in a makeshift shrine, a DIY memento mori. It’s cheap, but impactful. Equally, extensive use of Schumann’s hectic Symphony No. 4 stands in for a more expensive original composition.
On almost every level, “The Incident” is an emphatic rebuke to the notion that a freshman helmer — or indeed, anyone working within tight budgetary constraints — should restrict him- or herself to a modest canvas. Big ideas don’t have to be big-budget. The notion of infinite deja vu contained within a finite space is conceptually huge, but necessarily takes place within confined boundaries. (In televisual parlance, it’s the ultimate bottle episode.)
The pic’s unusual form is partially modeled on a Moebius strip, as Ezban’s parallel narratives reveal themselves as two sides of the same coin: connected yet separate, feeding back into themselves. A similar but simpler metaphor would be a hamster in a wheel, an image on which d.p. Rodrigo Sandoval’s camera periodically lingers throughout.
There is an intuitive elegance to the screenplay’s nightmare-logic structure that’s almost vandalized by a third-act folly: an extended explanatory sequence having to do with sacrifices and alternate versions of reality and moving the machinery of the world. This stretch plays more like low-budget Borges, displaying instincts less keen than the initial on-point homage to the likes of Philip K. Dick and Richard Matheson.
Still, it’s all proof that a head-turning first feature can be made for not much more money than a meaty short film nowadays, and, if well done, will act as a far more effective marketing tool for the nascent career of its director. Ezban, a short-film veteran, here essays long form for the first time; he has since completed a sophomore feature, “The Similars,” and is working on his English-language debut, “Disturbance.” At 29, he’s also found time to sign to Paradigm, noted for its robust roster of Hispanic/Latino crossover talent.
A smart and selectively targeted campaign could earn “The Incident” a cult rep in sci-fi circles and concomitant ancillary returns, particularly if Ezban’s subsequent career prompts an investigation of his back catalogue by new fans. His debut may not be sufficiently broad to break out to a wide market, but if the helmer maintains his current pace, a Colin Trevorrow-style accession to multiplex fare would not be surprising.