A seven-year hiatus from directing features seems to be just what Rodrigo Grande (“A Matter of Principles”) needed, since “At the End of the Tunnel” is by far the helmer’s most accomplished of his three films. The kind of movie that makes Saturday nights at the multiplex enjoyable, “Tunnel” is a tense, sharply made thriller about a paraplegic who discovers his attractive woman boarder is in cahoots with a team of hoods digging under his house and into the neighboring bank vault. With influences ranging from “Rififi” to “The Great Escape,” the film lays no claim to inventing the genre, yet Grande’s script is fun, his characters intriguing, and his buildup expertly paced. Receipts in Argentina were a respectable $1.2 million following an April opening, and a general European release could add nicely to the pic’s coffers – though late-summer Spanish returns failed to reach $800,000.
Joaquin (Leonardo Sbaraglia, “Wild Tales”) is an incongruously hunky computer geek living alone in a very large Buenos Aires house with an overgrown garden out back. It wasn’t always like this: Some time earlier, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, which left him a paralyzed from the waist down. Given his emotionally stunted state, it’s a surprise when he rents out living space to loquacious exotic dancer Berta (Clara Lago, “Spanish Affair”) and her mute tot of a daughter Betty (Uma Salduende), but he needs the money.
Most of his time is spent tinkering with old computer parts in the cellar, which is where he hears voices at odd hours coming through the wall. Disturbed by what he picks up with the aid of a stethoscope, Joaquin makes a hole in the wall and surreptitiously pokes a camera through. That’s when he learns that a gang is tunneling into the bank vault on the same street. He also discovers that Berta is the main squeeze of sadistic gang leader Javi Galereto (Pablo Echarri), and she’s in on what’s going on down – at least, in part.
Grande cleverly ratchets up the tension by introducing more and more snags, both personal and technical, complicating the heist just enough so that viewers are kept in a heightened state of suspense. His attention to detail and a sense of place ensure that our familiarity with the spaces of Joaquin’s house as well as the tunnel (all marvelously realized by art director Mariel Ripodas) keep us focused, allowing him to add notes of temporary confusion: Because we’re grounded in the physical spaces, we take pleasure in the surprise plot twists and grace notes, frequently achieved with smile-inducing wit. Among these is the presence of corrupt police chief Guttman (Federico Luppi), whose name is the phonetic equivalent of Sydney Greenstreet’s Gutman in “The Maltese Falcon,” and who carries a cane with a carved black-falcon handle.
Does the director occasionally overplay his hand? Sure. The scene where Berta performs her strip-tease routine on the roof for Joaquin’s benefit doesn’t need to be accompanied by flashes of lightning, and Lucio Godoy and Federico Jusid’s music pushes much harder than necessary. Sensitive audiences may also object to the treatment of little Betty, whose trauma is multiplied a hundredfold in the finale, yet we’re meant to take it as good, adrenaline-filled fun.
Sbaraglia’s biceps get quite a workout, propelling his wheelchair and hauling his weight about with just his arms. The physicality fits both actor and role, since the character’s taciturn disposition, wrapped in grief, limits verbal communication except when necessary. It’s the polar opposite of Lago’s pole dancer, a woman who talks nonstop, though she too knows how and when to use her physical attributes.
Sets are characters in their own right, and Grande, together with DP Félix Monti, makes terrific use of the opportunities they afford, with ace editing milking taut situations from action that happens simultaneously above and below stairs. In addition, lighting with an abundance of shadows sets off a decrepit steeliness in certain areas of the house, adding to the mood of muscular grunge-noir.