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Film Review: ‘Night of the Rat’

A sniper traps lovers at a gas station in this terse, resourceful low-budget thriller.

Miriam Cabeza, Unai Garcia, Mikel Martinez, Alfonso Torregrosa, Arantxa Monux, Luis Pozo, Garazi Gainberri, Tania Aparicio, Francisco Alvarez.

A neat exercise in extracting maximum value from minimal funds, a single location and (for the most part) just one actor, “Night of the Rat” is a terse suspenser whose protagonists find themselves trapped in the middle of the night at a gas station by an anonymous sniper. The non-ending is a distinct letdown, but otherwise, first-time feature helmer David R.L. demonstrates admirable control over the possibilities of a simple scenario. While this debut is probably a little too thin in terms of production value and concept to invite theatrical exposure, it should do well at genre fests, as a niche rental, and in boosting its primary collaborators to major-studio attention.

Sandra (Miriam Cabeza) and George (Unai Garcia) are office colleagues who rendezvous in the wee hours for a long drive to a work meeting. Both are tired and cranky; it takes us a while to realize that their bickering is also that of lovers, exacerbated by the secrecy necessitated by her jealous spouse, Alvaro. Does Alvaro call so frequently to monitor her every move because he suspects she’s cheating? Can she extricate herself from that relationship to commit wholly to George? Does she even want to?

All that becomes irrelevant soon after the two stop at some nondescript suburban gas station. As Sandra falls asleep in the car, George goes into the station convenience store, which is eerily abandoned and shows signs of disarray. Even before he discovers the poor attendant’s corpse, he’s shot at by an unseen outside assailant. Wounded and scrambling for cover between the store’s aisles, George has no way to warn Sandra until she wakes up. Nor do things improve when various pedestrians and drivers subsequently have the rotten luck to pass by — some realizing just what crisis they’ve stumbled onto only when it’s too late.

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The identity of the fleetingly glimpsed perp is kept secret to the end (it’s left to us to ponder whether it’s Alvaro or just some random nut), somewhat frustrating viewer expectations — though not half as much as an ending that simply leaves things up in the air. Given all the preceding tension and resourcefulness, this seems not an enigmatic cliffhanger, but one of those inexplicable decisions that makes you wonder just what the filmmakers were thinking. Did an actor quit? Did the money run out? Was there an actual reason not to write and shoot a narrative resolution?

That baffling fade aside, “Night of the Rat” is lean, mean and effective. Its action more or less takes place in real time, making flavorful use of the banal, fluorescent-lit pit-stop setting. Performances and technical contributions are expert, with Oscar Avila’s very active score a notable player in the otherwise stripped-down but savvy package.

Film Review: 'Night of the Rat'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 5, 2015. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: 80 MIN. (Original title: "La noche del raton")

Production: (Spain) A Lepantstrit Produce production. (International sales: Shoreline Entertainment, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Asier Vazquez. Co-producers, Ion Sadfi, Jorge Martin.

Crew: Directed by David R.L. Screenplay, Ruben Avila, R.L. Camera (color, HD), Peru Galbete; editor, Alvaro Herrero; art director, Noemi Chico; set decorators, Asier Ortega, Mario Carreno; sound, Luis Baranda; assistant directors, Inaki Ortiz, Jorge Martin.

With: Miriam Cabeza, Unai Garcia, Mikel Martinez, Alfonso Torregrosa, Arantxa Monux, Luis Pozo, Garazi Gainberri, Tania Aparicio, Francisco Alvarez.

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