There’s a Fury Road of sorts running through “Buy Me a Gun,” Meso-American filmmaker Julio Hernández Cordón’s orderless, genre-splicing seventh feature, but it’s a bumpy, meandering one; driving along it, you’ll spot “Mad Max’s” desolate, sun-scorched vistas from the windows, passing by at a fraction of the speed. An indeterminately dystopian vision of Mexico in the full control of cartels — whether it’s post-apocalyptic, pre-apocalyptic or merely apocalypse-adjacent is among the many question marks here — the film ostensibly centers on a father and daughter struggling to stick together through a barrage of regimented violence. Yet Hernández Cordón’s narrative is too slender and sluggish to gather much emotional force; wearing such disparate influences as George Miller and Mark Twain brashly on his sleeve, he seems distracted from the task at hand by his smaller, more inventive strokes of world-building. Viewers may follow suit.
Thanks to such well-traveled, tellingly titled features as “Gasolina,” “Marimbas from Hell” and “I Promise You Anarchy,” Hernández Cordón has acquired a reputation as one of Latin-American cinema’s most aggressive, hell-for-leather genre stylists. With its grisly, eccentric merging of speculative fantasy and gangster thriller elements, “Buy Me a Gun” won’t do that reputation any harm, and should make similar festival-circuit rounds to his previous features following its Cannes Director’s Fortnight debut. Still, it’s an oddly tentative work by his standards, lacking the storytelling brio to match its surface snarl. Brief but not brisk at 84 minutes, the film is missing a hunk of character development and tension-building between its protracted setup and curtailed climax.
For its first half, “Buy Me a Gun” strikes a peculiar tonal balance between menace and whimsy that at least seems effectively uncomfortable, keeping audiences on edge as to which way proceedings will finally fall. We’re at least as uncertain in this realm as pre-teen protagonist Huck (Matilde Hernández Guinea, an alert, appealing find in a predominantly non-pro ensemble), a rare surviving female in a near-ish future where, opening titles vaguely inform us, women have been disappearing and cartels run “everything, absolutely everything.”
Protectively disguised as a boy by her loving but hopelessly drug-addicted father Rogelio (Rogelio Sosa), whose wife and other children have been dispatched by cartel bosses, Huck lives by her wits in a manner befitting her literary namesake: Hernández Cordón originally conceived the project as a futuristic adaptation of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” before taking a more oblique course of homage. Would that “Buy Me a Gun” had been more firmly inspired by its picaresque structure. As it is, the film hovers awkwardly between Huck’s semi-innocent perspective, expressed in slightly precious voiceover, and that of the tragic Rogelio, a trailer-dwelling custodian at the baseball diamond where local drug lords and their heavies gather, play, bully and brawl. Rather too much time is spent detailing Rogelio’s servile relationship to the gang — which has only one way to go dramatically once he’s roped into a job at a grand, inevitably bloody cartel fiesta.
There’s more zip and wit in Huck’s antics with an all-male group of fellow child survivors, orphans who defend themselves guerilla-style from adult-size threats like a less cute pack of Lost Boys, stranded far from Neverland. One of these tykes is called Finn — just in case the reference points here were too hazily defined — but that’s as far as we get in terms of their characterization, as they, too, fall prey to the film’s divided attention. Between these points of focus, the relationship between Huck and Rogelio never quite becomes the beating heart of the action that might carry us through its leaps and longueurs. Only in the final quarter-hour or so does the dust, bloodspray and hectic rattle of bullets clear into something more empathetically elemental and quest-driven; one can imagine a stirring, “Beasts of the Latin Wild”-style tale building from this point, just as Hernández Cordón is hitting the brakes.
Until that late-in-the-day surge, “Buy Me a Gun” is a film that thrives on incidental details of atmosphere and environment, given aptly jaundiced, heatstruck visual unity by Nicolás Wong’s lensing and Ivonne Fuentes’ resourceful, scavenger-aesthetic production design. Mixing grassy camo gear, dime-store masks and driftwood planks, it’s a convincingly destitute dystopia of repurposed scraps from the world we know and eerie motifs from one we wish never to encounter — a textbook case of a film’s budgetary limitations working evocatively in its favor, right down to one grazing aerial shot of the aftermath of a massacre, rendered entirely in paper cutouts. Perhaps that’s a deliberate statement on the value of human life in the film’s parched, nightmarish future; either way, it’s when “Buy Me a Gun” is forced to sidestep flashier genre spectacle that it occasionally shows us something new.