An aura of dread and ominous, palpable evil hangs over every frame of Marshland (La isla mínima), a police procedural from Spain about two big-city detectives sent to Spain’s southern wetlands to investigate a ghastly double murder. On their way home from a fair, two teenage sisters were seen hitching a ride with a passing white car and have not been seen since. Soon after Madrid cops Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) arrive in the rural town, the girls’ mutilated bodies are discovered. They were raped, tortured and partly dismembered while still alive, and the killer (or killers) knew exactly what they were doing, leaving no physical evidence and few clues to go on other than tire marks on a dusty road.
Juan and Pedro, who have never met until now, don’t like each other. Pedro, who is married and is expecting a child, has disdain for the older Juan’s boozing, womanizing ways, but the men make an effective team, combining their years of experience and differing approaches to policework. Pedro is more methodical and observant, while Juan is impulsive and prone to using his fists to get answers while questioning the victims’ parents, their schoolmates and eyewitnesses. Of particular interest is Quini (Jesús Castro), an arrogant young man who knew the victims but has a solid alibi for the night they vanished, even though his striking green eyes remind you of a predator regarding its prey before pouncing.
Director Alberto Rodríguez, who also co-wrote the script with Rafael Cobos, is a disciple of David Fincher: His elegant widescreen compositions and use of light and shadows are strongly reminiscent of Seven and Zodiac, and the film’s eerie, disconcerting mood brings to mind HBO’s True Detective. Marshland swept this year’s Goya awards (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars), winning 10 including Best Picture, but the film’s true power doesn’t come from its thriller elements. Intentionally set in 1980, when the country was reeling from the end of Franco’s tyrannical rule and learning to adapt to a more liberal, democratic society, Marshland is a political allegory, with opportunistic journalists, labor strifes and revolutionary holdouts who still support the previous regime swirling around the two lead protagonists, complicating the investigation with their respective social and cultural interests. The real climax and horror of Marshland comes not with the resolution of the case but with the film’s implication that sometimes, in order to move forward, we must force ourselves to ignore unspeakable atrocity and crimes against humanity or else get mired in a never-ending cycle of retribution.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Raúl Arévalo, Javier Gutiérrez, Nerea Barros, Antonio de la Torre, Jesús Castro.
Director: Alberto Rodríguez.
Screenwriters: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos.
An Outsider Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, gore, graphic crime scene imagery, strong adult themes. Plays at 9:45 p.m. March 12 at Gusman. A U.S. premiere.