Marshland (La isla mínima)

marshland 2.jpeg
UK Release Date 7th August 2015
Director Alberto Rodríguez
Starring Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo
Runtime 105 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 9th August 2015

As both were made in 2014, it’s difficult to say who is taking inspiration from whom, or whether any similarities are coincidental but Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez’s latest movie shares a good deal in common with Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective. Fortunately for all concerned the main thing it shares is that both are excellent.

Marshland opens with some breathtaking aerial shots of the Marshland of the Spanish deep south. Vibrant in colour and in places eeriely reminiscent of a cross-section of human brain, these shots reoccur throughout the movie, serving not only as a breathing space but also adding some much needed air into the humid squalor of the ground-level activities.

These beautiful landscapes offer a stark contrast to the activities of the humans inhabiting them. Set in 1980 after the fall of Franco’s regime and in the seething distrust of the fledgling democracy, we pick up with two detectives sent out into the swamp to investigate the disappearance of two local girls. Only five years have passed since Franco died and the new Spanish constitution is still taking hold. Remnants of fascism can still be seen in such common place items such as hotel decorations and people are edgy, not knowing whose side their fellow countrymen were on during the previous reign.

Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) have been flung together as partners when the latter is exiled to the countryside after an ill-advised newspaper broadside at an army General. Two mismatched cops then but with far bigger divisions than we are used to seeing in this type of police procedural thriller (something that becomes more obvious as the movie progresses). Interviewing the parents of the missing sisters, nothing is what it seems. The father is angry and dismissive of the cops, the mother terrified to say anything in her husband’s presence. Add to this some half burned pornographic negatives and the local Civil Guard’s misogynist assertion that the girls were ‘easy’ and it quickly becomes clear that this is not going to end well.

The atmosphere created by Rodríguez and cinematographer Alex Catalán is all encompassing and utterly stifling. Flies constantly hum around the edges of the screen and dank oranges and browns make every frame drip with an organic grime that you will feel clinging to your arms even in the air-conditioning of the cinema. The aerial shots offer brief respite from the horrors below but as the movie progresses only serve to further magnify the cloying distrust of a country attempting to deal with its past and characters attempting to ignore each other's.

Gutiérrez as the immaculately moustachioed, sinister Juan exudes mistrust from the outset, arrogantly stuffing his dinner down him as the Civil Guard brief the two detectives on the crime. A man broken by his past and racked with ill-health he seems destined to end badly. Arévalo (probably last seen by English speaking audiences in the substantially different circumstances of Almodova’s delightfully camp I’m So Excited!) offers an impressive contrast as the more straight laced family man Pedro, and not just because his moustache is somewhat on the ragged side. Split from his pregnant wife by his forced exile to the marshes, Arévalo manages to avoid any of the usual cliched behaviour we’d expect from the straight man. This is a man who is not averse to ‘pressing’ a suspect beyond standard police procedure.

And despite its familiar feel to anyone who has watched Fukunaga’s TV masterpiece, at no point does Marshland feel over-familiar or tired. As a plot written down, nothing here is particularly new, the movie treads any number of familiar lines with its mismatched partners, corruption at the highest level and young girls exploited by a close-knit community but there is far more going on here. The 1980’s setting offers up more than dubious fashion and dodgy cars. Rodríguez builds a palpable feeling of mistrust, not only between his two main protagonists but also within the communities they work in. Uncertainty courses through this community as the rivers do through the marshland and with it a pervading sense of unease. Against this background, the detectives work takes on a much more complicated life.

In Short:

Marshland is not the quick-fire thriller that the trailer would have you believe it is and it is all the better for it. His movie is slow, methodical and absolutely drenched with sweaty unease but Rodríguez still manages to crank up the suspense when the story calls for it. With an interesting central pairing bringing whole new levels to the standard mismatched cop routine, this is a movie focussed on keeping you on just the wrong side of comfortable throughout. As the horror mounts up and the increasingly fraught partners are driven to ever more unorthodox policing methods, even what looks like being a standard cop movie payoff will wrong-foot you entirely. Nothing is quite what it seems out in the marshes….

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