Dramas of revenge always make it look so easy. The hero, at the outset, may be a civilized, too-polite-for-his-own-good sort (even Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” started off that way — though who could really buy him as a mild-mannered urbane architect?). Yet once he’s transitioned into becoming a killer with a vendetta, that blood-oath identity starts to seem as natural as a second skin. The movies have conditioned us; they’ve spent more than a century reveling in violence that carries a righteous edge.
In real life, however, if you’re planning to take revenge on someone, the actions — and emotions — tend to be a lot less clear-cut. There’s fear and doubt and dread and, just maybe, the moral queasiness that greets you in the aftermath: What am I doing? Can I live with myself? Did that bloodbath I just carried out actually do any good?
Those are the existential questions that haunt “Cocote,” a drama from the Dominican Republic that creeps up to the subject of revenge without exploiting it. That’s a refreshing thing to see, though it does make you wish “Cocote” were a better movie. The writer-director, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias (it’s his first fiction feature), has talent in the form of a certain avant pictorial audacity. He cuts between hot color and austere black-and-white, compositions suitable for framing and punchy vulgarities culled from reality TV, and he holds underpopulated long shots with a teasingly static suspense that may remind you of mid-period Antonioni.
The filmmaker is out to mirror the off-balance state of his hero, a goal he nails in a hallucinatory traveling shot of a red-dirt road, accompanied by a soundtrack that recalls the ominous score that Mick Jagger composed for Kenneth Anger’s “Invocation of My Demon Brother.” But de Los Santos Arias also has a penchant for lyrical ethnographic verité that’s captivating for about five minutes, until it starts to get in the way of the story he’s telling. It’s not a problem that “Cocote” is a fevered art film, but the movie is slipshod arty — a lurching, fragmentary tone poem that relies on too much patching together in the editing room. Yet a handful of the fragments are tantalizing.
The movie is a tale of class war, corruption, and murder. Alberto Almonte (Vicente Santos), tall and dignified and remote, is a gardener in his early forties who works for a wealthy family in Santo Domingo, the capital city where he has learned to keep his head down. He’s an evangelical Christian, one who clings (literally) to his Bible, but when he returns to the rural region of Oviedo for the burial of his father, he is plunged, against his will, into the more atavistic religion of his family. It’s referred to, at several points, as witchcraft, and looks a bit like voodoo, and its key expression is the nine days of mourning known as “the Rezos.” De Los Santos Arias shoots these rituals as an ongoing handheld-camera pageant of singing, chanting, wailing, dancing, writhing, and screaming, and it all has a documentary-like immediacy and fervor, though it also keeps stopping the momentum of the movie cold.
Alberto’s father, a drunk who owed money, was killed by Martinez, a local member of the National Police, which the film portrays as a mobster gang: the law that no one can question. Alberto has no desire to make waves, but his adult sisters, Patria (Yuberbi de la Rosa) and Karina (Judith Rodríguez Perez), are in a rage over the death of their flawed patriarch, who was beheaded (an act the film compares to the slaughter of a chicken — that’s part of the meaning of the title). They keep pushing Alberto to do something, and though it’s against his principles, not to mention his nature, the movie is about how the situation slowly runs him ragged.
Alberto is read the riot act by one of Martinez’s henchmen in a scene lit, strikingly, by an old car’s glaring headlights. The scene has a suspense that’s almost noirish, and there are a handful of other moments like that, but they don’t build. Each time “Cocote” reels you in with Alberto’s tale, it then takes two steps back to give you the abstract big picture of a degraded society torn between poverty and wealth, pagan mysticism and Christian benevolence. The warring forces start to tear Alberto apart, until he’s driven to act: a desperate catharsis that winds up victorious or self-destructive, or maybe both. “Cocote,” to its credit, never stops adding up the price of revenge. But the film, for all its scrappy layered dazzle, could have used less calculation and more free-flowing life.