The surface of “Time Share” may be liberally splashed with chlorinated blues and violent magentas, but the heart ticking beneath Mexican writer-director Sebastián Hofmann’s sleekly insidious sophomore feature is as black as burnt steak, and all the more alluring for it. A nasty, nettling little puzzle piece that cleverly probes patriarchal insecurity and corporate invasiveness through the course of one botched family vacation, the film coolly reels in viewers with radioactive visuals and a nightmarish slow-burn setup that calls both Michael Haneke and Ira Levin to mind: Two married men, separately in the grip of a corrupt luxury resort, fight the brightly-packaged company hypnosis that appears to have claimed their loved ones. If Hofmann doesn’t deliver a payoff quite worthy of his premise, “Time Share” remains an arresting, electric tease; edgier arthouse distributors should book themselves in.
Returning to Sundance’s world cinema competition five years after his striking debut “Halley” bowed in the same section, Hofmann announces from the off that he isn’t out to make things easy for his audience. “Time Share” opens on a disquietingly cryptic pre-credits prologue, introducing married couple Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) as they tearily talk through a shared, unspecified sorrow, before leading a gaggle of happier families in a gunny sack race at the vast, well-maintained Everfields coastal resort, where they both work. Andres’ sudden, paralyzing panic attack caps a scene that lightly clues viewers into the blend of severity and eerie absurdism to come, though we haven’t time to process it: In a single cut, five years pass, and a younger family is introduced at the centre of the action.
Pedro (Luis Gerardo Mendez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) are evidently working through some tamped-down trauma of their own when they check into a plush Everfields timeshare with their young son. Their R&R gets off to a rocky start, however, with the arrival of another family, headed by earthy, gregarious dad Abel (Andrés Almeida) at their doorstep; Everfields, part of a global chain of resorts that aggressively pitches concepts of “paradise” and “healing” to its customers, has double-booked the villa. Yet while this administrative error — for which management offers a glib apology but no rectification, as overbooking “isn’t illegal if it’s the result of success” — sends Pedro into a fit of pique, everyone else is strangely, passively accepting as the two families are forced to share the space.
No one comes off entirely well in this savagely drawn scenario. Hofmann and co-writer Julio Chavezmontes find social comedy in Pedro’s prissy classism — “We’re not spending time with them; [our son’s] IQ will drop,” he hisses to Eva about Abel’s brood — while keenly satirizing the disingenuous culture of corporate “caring” advocated by brands like Everfield. “You can trust us as if we were family,” a staff member says in trying to appease Pedro, and he doesn’t know the half of it: In cavernous backrooms of the resort complex, staff training sessions led by an unsettlingly slick sales head (“Breaking Bad” star RJ Mitte, intriguingly cast) resemble a form of cultish mind control. It’s here where we catch up with Andres and Gloria, now all but estranged: While his wife is a compliant rising star in the Everfields regime, Andres has been consigned to the resort’s menial underbelly.
Pedro and Andres are kindred spirits of a sort, both men dazed and disoriented as their lives and families slip, in uncanny but seemingly inexorable fashion, beyond their control — though Hofmann patiently develops their respective psychological binds in parallel for some time before they begin to cross. Aided by the looping, wandering rhythm of its editing (by the helmer, alongside Nathalie Alonso Casale and Yibrán Assuad), “Time Share” vividly unfolds like a bad dream in its muted surrealism, digressive structure and sudden but impassive leaps in logic, and that’s before live flamingos start encroaching on the interior proceedings. Rather like Pedro, viewers drift through its narrative corridors both riveted and powerless to anticipate its turns. After patiently building to such a fevered state, however, the film’s final reels don’t quite deliver the throat-grab they should: Key questions are left aptly unresolved, but not pressed to their most extreme possibilities.
It’s the woozily menacing cinematic language here that lingers, as cinematographer Matías Penachino, production designer Claudio Ramirez Castelli and composer Giorgio Giampà (giving Danny Elfman a run for his money in the sinister-whimsy stakes) all artfully corrupting the serenity of the film’s synthetic environment with strangely hellish detailing. Penachino, in particular, deserves to score some major assignments off the back of his head-turning compositions, in which saturated soda-pop hues are frequently rotted by shadow: “Time Share” is the kind of film that can turn pools of blush-pink to blood-red in a single shot, and a trick of either the light or mind is responsible.