Mexican director Michel Franco is a filmmaker of cool-blooded precision and intelligence. Yet filmgoers largely haven’t had a chance to see him at his best. ‘After Lucia’, a heart-stopping cautionary tale about extreme teen bullying, won a prize at Cannes in 2013, yet went straight to DVD in the UK. The presence of Tim Roth in Franco’s English-language, Los Angeles-set latest looks like a move to the mainstream, but compromises are few and far between in this tough-minded character study.
Roth plays David, a mild-mannered home nurse to the terminally ill. But while he’s gentle in his professional duties, not everything about is as trustworthy as he seems. At the outset, he’s dedicatedly looking after Sarah, an Aids patient. Later, he tells an acquaintance that his late wife, also named Sarah, was a casualty of the same disease. If that seems a coincidence, further questionable blind spots emerge in his story, while another patient’s family sues him for sexual harassment.
Franco’s script teases out the character’s tangled ambiguities with immaculate control: even as the story proceeds in the lowest of keys, our nerves never settle. Roth, meanwhile, is as marvellous as he’s ever been, playing someone who may be a misunderstood saint or an oddly benevolent sociopath. It’s a delicate performance that exudes a tender kind of chill. Only Franco’s sharp left turn of an ending strikes a false note. Without getting into spoiler territory, there’s a forced fatalism to it that smacks of directorial panic. It’s a forgiveable misstep, however, in an otherwise sensitive, slow-developing bruise of a film.