A jolting opening segues into a scattered, slightly confusing beginning, but Spanish actor-turned-director Raúl Arévalo quickly brings his deeply impressive debut under control, reining in the narrative with a hand that betrays almost none of a neophyte’s unsteadiness. It’s a taut little story of devolving nastiness, uncompromising in its relentless, western-influenced linearity, and yet Arévalo still finds time for the most elusive attribute in the familiar territory of the lean revenge thriller: surprise. The bait-and-switch structure, by which the hesitant, complicated, real-world romance of the first half is revealed to have much darker and knottier import in the second, makes the film, which Arévalo co-wrote with David Pulido, a singular dish, best served cold.
The prologue, which seems oddly unrelated in both form and content to the rest of the film but makes sense down the road, is a cleverly bruising piece of action cinema, as getaway driver Curro (Luís Callejo) waits in jittery anxiety outside the jewelry store his cohorts are robbing. Something goes wrong, the masked men come helter-skelter out of the store, but before they can reach Curro, sirens sound out. Curro flings the car into gear and speeds off in panic, before crashing a few moments later and being apprehended by the police — all of which is captured in a bravura unbroken shot that somersaults with the crashing car. DP Arnau Valls Colomer seems equally at home with this handheld, extreme POV camerawork, and with the more considered, carefully composed framing in which the rest of the film unfolds.
Some years later, Curro’s wife Ana (Ruth Diaz) has become accustomed to Curro’s incarceration, and barring the odd conjugal visit, lives a simple, hardworking life running a café with her brother Juanjo (Raúl Jiménez). A quiet, well-groomed man, Jose (Antonio de la Torre) begins to spend a lot of time there, despite being a social grade or two above the neighborhood, and not from around those parts. The outgoing Juanjo befriends Jose, whose sidelong glances at Ana suggest the real reason he so frequently patronizes this unlovely spot. It takes time, but a tentative relationship begins between them, and the harried, prickly, practical Ana seems to soften and bloom as a result. But alone at night Jose obsesses over a few minutes of CCTV footage depicting jewelry store robbery.
Arévalo tips his hand early that all is not as it seems, but despite that, and a lot because of the superbly controlled playing from de la Torre, who invests Jose’s silences with a kind of steadfast sincerity that completely shields his real motives, we still believe in Ana and Jose’s relationship. But then the volatile and possessive Curro is released from prison, and the film ramps into its second half, which becomes part road movie and part psychological thriller, in which the two men serve as antagonists but also traveling companions — a kind of buddy dynamic, only nobody is friends here. Even so, it seems possible that we’re going to follow either or both on their path to redemption, but when the first bloody and graphic killing occurs, we understand that Arévalo’s fascination is with the very opposite: This is the tale of man deeply involved in his own premeditated damnation.
Arévalo, at just 36, is a 16-year veteran as an actor. However, his ambition has reportedly always been to direct, and he claims to have spent much of his time on set studying the craft intently — patiently, one might say. Perhaps that’s the reason “Fury” so elegantly avoids so many of the pitfalls of first-time actor-directors: Good as de la Torre is, Arévalo is not interested in building a film that is a temple to a single performance, or even several. Instead, he is totally committed to the mechanics of the story, showing a remarkable grasp of tone across the film’s relatively disparate halves (it’s also divided into four chapters, each favoring a slightly different point of view), and creating a real sense of peril that arises from the beautifully underplayed ambivalence of the characters.
In all, it makes the film a package that hits a highly exportable sweet spot between hard-bitten genre and foreign arthouse fare. It is also, in the studied contrast between Curro and Jose, an incisive portrait of corrugated masculinity and the extremely different ways it can manifest in a society still underscored with elements of machismo. Curro is violent, felonious, loud, and blue-collar where Jose is polite, cultured, and quiet. “The Fury of a Patient Man” reminds us all, in darkly dazzling form, that it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.