He’s a crumpled ambulance-chasing legal worker. She’s a hard-pressed junior doctor doing too many paramedic shifts. They meet at the scene of a car accident, and the Hollywood take on this scenario would involve Clive Owen looking stubbly, Anne Hathaway trying to leave her goody-goody image further behind, a bit of intrigue, a touch of romance and – doubtless – a hefty dose of redemption.
Not in Pablo Trapero’s version. From the looks of it, redemption is in short supply in Argentina, and this brooding, gnarly, grown-up drama from the country’s hottest directorial talent is all the better for it. Being subtitled and somewhat sinewy, this inevitably will be tagged as an arthouse movie, yet it most resembles the conspiracy thrillers that Hollywood turned out in its 1970s golden age. Think Alan J Pakula and Francis Ford Coppola, ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘The Conversation’, tainted heroes, and an abiding sense of a system so mired in corruption the rest of us don’t stand a chance.
Certainly, ‘Carancho’ (it translates as ‘The vulture’) paints a grim picture of life on the roads and hospitals of Buenos Aires. The accident statistics are terrifying enough, but even scarier are the dubious legal scavengers feeding off the victims. These ambulance chasers, as represented by rumpled protagonist Ricardo Darín, sign up any poor schmuck who’s been in a hit-and-run, promise them a huge insurance pay-out, and then (needless to say) claim the bulk of the money for themselves. What makes the ever world-weary Darín one of the most charismatic leads on screen anywhere right now is his ability – manifested in accomplished Argentine offerings like ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ and ‘Nine Queens’ – to play individuals who are seriously compromised, yet still manage to keep the viewer on-side, as we urge them to get it together and do the right thing.
Co-star Martina Gusman matches him every step of the way, and the characters’ attraction is born from a mutual instinct that they might just survive the wreckage of their lives if they cling together. Gusman, writer-director Trapero’s wife and co-producer, is an actress who insidiously inhabits a role (see her imprisoned mum in Trapero’s remarkable ‘Lion’s Den’), and again she is captivating here as an increasingly disillusioned junior medic fighting sleep-deprivation and her hospital’s warped management structure. As the forces of darkness envelop the lovers, Trapero’s plotting can seem overly deterministic and not quite as slick as it needed to be. Still, the desolate Edward Hopper nightscapes provide an effective context for a film where the question of how far someone can stray before they’re lost forever isn’t just a matter of narrative trickery but a genuinely soulful, gnawingly tense moral challenge.