Cannes frequently gets criticized for the paucity of Latin American representation in the main competition, so it was widely assumed that the new feature from festival veteran Amat Escalante, the 2013 best director winner for Heli, would be guaranteed a spot. Sad to report that watching Lost in the Night (Perdidos en la noche), it’s easy to see why it was shuffled off to a sidebar. The Mexican filmmaker moves out from the shadow of his former mentor, Carlos Reygadas, with his most accessible work to date in this revenge thriller, which is engrossing enough but also a bit meandering and underpowered.
Escalante’s fifth feature takes its cues more from his experience in television on Narcos: Mexico than from his previous big-screen work, which could in theory bring him to a wider audience. But it lacks the tight cohesion of that series at its best, and softens the jarring intensity, startling jolts of violence and nightmarish strangeness on which he built his reputation. He’s moved on from a penis on fire to a sweet handjob in the sun, albeit one shown in unblinking closeup.
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The movie has plenty on its mind. It’s about the impunity of the rich in a society mired in corruption; class inequality and the scant value placed on the lives of the rural poor; art inspired by other people’s violent trauma that purports to expose injustice but more often exploits it; capitalist enterprises that are an environmental blight to agricultural communities that also need the economic lifeline they provide. It’s also an amateur sleuthing story that explores more basic themes of love and loss, greed and payback.
Working from a script he co-wrote with his brother, Martin Escalante, the director starts with DP Adrian Durazo’s camera slinking around an empty lakeside home full of kinetic sculptures and other artsy showpieces, clearly the property of wealthy residents. The luxury building’s cold modernist form already suggests an imposing intrusion on the sun-bleached landscape. (The film was shot in Guanajuato state, in Central Mexico.)
The title refers to an incident three years earlier when activists protesting the opening of a Canadian-owned mine were pulled over by cops, with the driver shot in the head and the others not seen or heard from since. One of the missing people is Paloma (Vicky Araico), the mother of Emiliano (Juan Daniel García Treviño), who has grown frustrated with the efforts of his older sister to trace her and knows that corruption runs too deep in law enforcement and the judiciary to expect results.
The whispered confession of a dying cop steers Emiliano back to the villa seen in the opening, the home of Spanish mixed-media artist Rigo (Fernando Bonilla), his actress-singer partner Carmen (Bárbara Mori) and her daughter Mónica (Ester Expósito), who gets her kicks making videos in which she fakes her own suicide for social media likes. Convinced the family is somehow involved in the disappearances, Emiliano gets a job working as their handyman in order to sniff around for evidence. Rigo’s coziness with a shady cop (Jero Medina) possibly working on the night of the disappearances further confirms Emiliano’s suspicions.
While the set-up promises an intriguing amateur-detective story with a highly personal stake, there’s too little tension or build-up as Emiliano gets closer to the murky truth. The script spends a lot of time on a religious sect believed to be targeting Rigo with acts of vandalism and violence because of an art piece he made depicting their founding father as a pedophile. And Mónica’s sexually forward behavior around Emiliano creates confusion with his adoring teenage sweetheart Jazmin (Mafer Osio).
But Escalante keeps straying from the central mystery, allowing the narrative to go slack, and the drawn-out climax is soft on catharsis. The script’s efforts to shape the story into a reflection of institutional rot in Mexico, where the midpoint between God and profit often ends up being crime, lack teeth.
There’s perverse amusement in tracking who’s the most fucked-up among Mónica, her mother and her stepfather, a hotly contested race; if ever a family called for vicious Michael Haneke treatment (or Michel Franco, to keep it in Mexico), it’s this one.
Performances are solid down the line, with Treviño ably carrying most of the weight as the young man whose life has remained stuck in neutral, simmering in anger and frustration as he waits for answers about his mother. That plight effectively carries broader echoes of the countless families in Latin American countries left in the dark after the unexplained disappearances of loved ones.
The sharp widescreen compositions of DP Durazo keep the film interesting even when the plotting idles, and the disquieting score by Stranger Things composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein maintains an atmospheric charge throughout. But for a director who, in films like Heli and The Untamed, has kept our eyes wide open with sadism, sex and truly weird sci-fi, Lost in the Night marks a disappointingly conventional swerve.
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