Film Review: ‘The Incident’

A fatal case of deja vu traps two groups in apparently infinite time loops in Isaac Ezban's attention-grabbing curio.

Raul Mendez, Nailea Norvind, Hernan Mendoza, Humberto Busto, Fernando Alvarez Rebeil, Gabriel Santoyo, Paulina Montemayor, Hector Mendoza, Leonel Tinajero, Marcos Moreno.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3528756/

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'The Incident'

Reviewed online, London, Oct. 4, 2015. (In 2014 Fantastic Fest; Busan, Vancouver, Sitges, Raindance film festivals.) Running time: 101 MIN. (Original title: "El incidente")

Production: (Mexico) A Shoreline Entertainment (worldwide) release of a Yellow Films, Cine Canibal production. (International sales: Shoreline Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Salomon Askenazi, Miriam Mercado, Isaac Ezban. Executive producers, Salomón Askenazi, Miriam Mercado; Co-producers, Victor Shuchleib, Andrea Quiroz.

Crew: Directed, written by Isaac Ezban. Camera (color, widescreen), Rodrigo Sandoval Vega Gil; editor, Salomon Askenazi; music, Edy Lan, production designer, Adelle Achar; costume designer, Vladimir Amok; sound, Lex Ortega, Luis Flores; supervising sound editor, German Coronado; visual effects supervisor, Marius Henry Hoyo; stunt coordinator, Daniel Lee; associate producer, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Geminiado Pineda, Fernando Montes de Oca; assistant director, Isaac Cherem.

With: Raul Mendez, Nailea Norvind, Hernan Mendoza, Humberto Busto, Fernando Alvarez Rebeil, Gabriel Santoyo, Paulina Montemayor, Hector Mendoza, Leonel Tinajero, Marcos Moreno.

More Film

  • The Book of Sun

    Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Festival to Feature 'The Assistant,' Local Opener 'The Book of Sun'

    Saudi Arabia’s nascent Red Sea International Film festival has unveiled its inaugural lineup featuring the Middle East premiere of Harvey Weinstein-inspired workplace abuse drama “The Assistant” amid a fresh mix of feature films and docs from Europe, the U.S., Asia, and Africa launching in the region on top of a robust representation of Arab films. [...]

  • Aerial View of Jiangxia temporary hospital

    Virus Kills Chinese Film Director and Family in Wuhan

    A Chinese film director and his entire family have died from the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Chang Kai, a film director and an external communications officer at a Hubei Film Studio subsidiary, died in hospital on Feb. 14 from the virus now called COVID-19, according to a statement from the [...]

  • Remi Bonhomme

    Marrakech Film Festival Taps Cannes Exec Remi Bonhomme as Artistic Director

    Remi Bonhomme, a leading force behind Cannes’ Critics Week, has been appointed artistic director of the Marrakech Film Festival and its industry conference, the Atlas Workshops. In recent years, Bonhomme successfully headed the Atlas Workshops, a platform dedicated to supporting the cinema of the African continent and the Arab world, where he was also part [...]

  • A Stasi Comedy

    Picture Tree Intl. Picks Up Leander Haussmann's 'A Stasi Comedy' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Berlin-based Picture Tree International (PTI) has acquired global sales rights to Leander Haussmann’s highly anticipated East German laffer “A Stasi Comedy.” Set in the early 1980s, the film centers on East Germany’s infamous state security service, the Staatssicherheitsdienst or Stasi, and young agent Ludger, played by David Kross (“Balloon,” “The Reader”), who is sent to [...]

  • Berlin: Media Luna Acquires Horror Thriller

    Berlin: Media Luna Acquires Horror Thriller 'Blood-Red Ox' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Media Luna New Films has acquired international rights to Rodrigo Bellott’s horror thriller “Blood-Red Ox.” Bellott directed Bolivia’s Academy Award entries “Sexual Dependency” and “Tu Me Manques,” and was the producer behind Jim Mickle’s U.S. remake of Mexican horror hit “We Are What We Are.” In “Blood-Red Ox,” which is in post-production, a [...]

  • Parasite Movie

    'Parasite' Enjoys Record Box Office Boost After Oscar Wins

    Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is reaping box office riches after its groundbreaking Oscar best picture win. The twisted South Korean thriller collected $5.5 million over the weekend, an exceptional 234% increase in ticket sales and the biggest post-Oscar boost for a best picture winner in the past decade. In the seven days since the Academy [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content