La isla mínima (Marshland) – VIFF 2015 Review


Marshland is the latest neo-noir crime thriller from Spanish filmmaker Alberto Rodríguez (Unit 7) and it’s a gloomily rococo showpiece and a relentless shocker.

Set in the autumn of 1980 in the ethereal Guadalquivir Marshes – glimpsed repeatedly and tellingly from impossible heights, suggesting the point of view of a vengeful deity – a series of brutal crimes have been committed in the sticks. Two teenage girls have vanished, in a line of disappearances, only to be found days later in the marshland, murdered, violated, utterly and savagely laid to waste.

Following, at least at first, in a familiar police procedural fashion, two ideologically at odds detectives from Madrid are on the case. Pedro Suárez (Raúl Arévalo) is the young rookie and Juan Robles (Javier Gutiérrez) is the waning, but violence-prone veteran with a shady past in this incredibly stylish and macabre white-knuckler.

Rodríguez vigorously frames the investigation in a post-Franco milieu, which makes the sociopolitical coloring all the more capricious in a tale that often flirts with Kafka-like nightscapes and bleached-out daybreak recesses.

The compulsion of Pedro and Juan to solve the increasingly ugly case is never less than compelling. Juan, who seems to be in the throes of illness and a haunting past, keeps having fatalistic hunches, strange connections with nature – a colorful bird in his hotel room seems like a nightmare passage from the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks – suggest something sacrosanct captaining the pair.

It’s one of many mysteries that Marshland imbibes the audience into. The plot moves in a few Byzantine this-and-that-a-ways, and some of the detours are foreseeable – from the moment we meet Quini (Jesús Castro) he’s suspicious, you’d have to be blind not to implicate him – but the process is only part of what Marshland surrenders.

Rodríguez seems to take after David Fincher or Cary Joji Fukunaga in depicting places where society crumbles and in offering offbeat tweaks and terrors of familiar genre tropes, and it’s an apt comparison.

Fans of Se7en and True Detective will find much to revere in Rodríguez’s eerie portrait of backwoods brutality. He’s every bit as stylish and seditious as his esteemed peers, and also knows the value of occasional comic relief as well, something Fincher and Fukunaga seldom display.

Marshland received an almost unprecedented 10 Goya Awards, including Best Director and Best Film, and with all the meticulousness and precision in play, it’s no wonder. Except for all the bleak and oppressive subject matter, Marshland is a deviant master work with little reprieve.

Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)