A flock of sheep, fleeces and faces splattered with blood, mill around the camera in ovine alarm. The source of the blood is revealed: a young farmer standing among them, with an enormous spurting gash across her throat, so deep you can see tendons and perhaps even the white of bone. It’s a shocking image to see in the first minute of a film, but what makes the opening of Alejandro Fadel’s “Murder Me, Monster” truly memorable is when the woman’s hands come up into frame as she tries to fix her nearly severed head back on her neck. This unflinchingly grotesque and darkly comic opening, however, is deceptive in being so declarative. Most of the rest of this Un Certain Regard title burns much lower and slower, mountainously heavy with mood and metaphysics, and almost completely incomprehensible.
Set in the Mendoza region of Argentina, which is famous for its vineyards, “Murder Me, Monster” presents a picture of the area unlikely to be endorsed by the tourist board. The light outside is dim and failing, and interiors are shrouded in shadow by Julian Apezteguía and Manuel Rebella’s inky cinematography. The sense of rural alienation, isolation-bred derangement and neighborly distrust is palpable. When heavy-browed police officer Cruz (Victor Lopez) arrives on the scene of the latest mutilation and beheading, it’s his fatalistic lack of surprise that is most notable.
The chief murder suspect, David (Esteban Bigliardi), who is the husband of the woman with whom Cruz is having an open-secret affair, suffers from hallucinations and visions and believes he is telepathically connected to a monster. So the story takes on its mystical aspects as Cruz resorts to increasingly Dale Cooper-style tactics, including drawing arcane symbols and pictures in the pages of a small book titled “Manual of Police Investigation” in an effort to solve the case. In this endeavor he is aided and hindered by his police captain (Jorge Prado, often lit to look semi-demonic), who’s given to barking the word “Forensics!” at crime scenes and whose weirdly intimate yet didactic relationship to the taciturn Cruz is yet another inexplicable element here.
The film unfolds, roughly speaking, as a procedural, which makes its plot, shorn of embellishments, relatively straightforward. But Fadel’s approach is anything but, and it’s not long before his maddeningly elliptical style begins to feel deliberately obfuscatory, while the suspicion nags that there’s not a lot going on beneath the sludgy storytelling. And that frustration increases along with the body count (almost always women, always decapitated), and further again when David’s monster is given form.
The creature effects are startling — this thing has a long, phallic tail that can strangle and an eyeless face that opens up along several fleshy folds to reveal rows of vicious teeth: It is both a murderous penis and a vagina dentata. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, this is what you get when the committee has been force-fed an LSD-Viagra cocktail and asked to design Jabba the Hutt. But what the hermaphroditic horror signifies, and why it apparently causes those “possessed” to spew gobbets of greenish goop from their mouths, remains a mystery it’s difficult to be too bothered about solving.
After 2012’s similarly opaque “The Wild Ones,” Fadel, who is a screenwriter-collaborator on several of Pablo Trapero’s much more straightforward social dramas, has developed an uncompromisingly nightmarish, extreme-slow-motion vision of the effects of rural displacement on the male psyche, and then given ungodly form to that paranoia. There’s a certain commonality, then, with Amat Escalante’s art-house creature feature “The Untamed,” which was itself not exactly breezy fare but explored its unsettling themes with far greater potency than Fadel musters. “Murder Me, Monster” is impressive for its atmospherics — it’s a film you peer into until you find something nasty in the murk and recoil, but the meaning is a muddle.