Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Neglected Gem # 54: Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) (2007)

I have a soft spot for time travel films. In the question of time – how it works, what it means, and whether or not we can master it – there is potential for great storytelling, because it taps into the most fundamental questions we can ask. Make no wonder that time is represented so broadly in film, from the nested intricacy of Primer, the numbing repetition of Groundhog Day, to the haunting exploration of La Jetée, and the visceral desperate action of The Terminator or Looper. The subject of time transcends genre, allowing stories of all stripes to emerge, and while they often don’t tell us much about time itself – except, perhaps, not to meddle with it – they do reveal plenty about the artist asking the question. And what we learn about Nacho Vigalondo, the writer and director behind 2007’s Spanish-language Los cronocrímenes (or Timecrimes in English), is that his view of time is very fatalistic indeed.

The film focuses on a middle-aged man named Héctor who enjoys a quiet existence with his wife. At the beginning of the film, Héctor witnesses something strange in his backyard, and his curiosity takes him into the woods to investigate. He is attacked by a mysterious man, and as night falls, he flees to a strange building in search of help. I hesitate to offer more detail before advising that you watch this finely-made film, and then come back to read the rest of this review. Timecrimes is certainly more enjoyable if you know little or nothing about it going in, and I am going to spoil it in the next few paragraphs, so read on at your discretion. In his haste to get away from his attacker – a man swathed in pink bandages which cover his face – Héctor breaks into the building, grabbing a walkie-talkie and calling for help. He is answered by a man who leads him through the dark to a silo, promising to protect him from the bandaged man by watching the surrounding forest on his security cameras. When Héctor arrives to meet the man on the other end of the walkie, the man (bearded, young, distant, distracted; this is writer/director Vigalondo) insists that he hide inside a large, industrial-looking machine. Héctor hesitates, but his attacker is moments away, and in his terror he climbs in as the man activates the machine, which closes over Héctor. Thus our protagonist becomes “the first vertebrate to travel in time”, spilling out of the machine almost an hour before he got in.

Karra Elejalde and Barbara Goenaga
I admit the plot is slightly predictable (I knew right away, for example, that the bandaged man was another version of Héctor), but it still surprises; as events unfold, and “Héctor 2” conspires to ensure that “Héctor 1” runs into the woods and enters the machine, the looping plot bends in unexpected directions. It’s after the loop is ostensibly closed – when Héctor 1 gets into the machine, and Héctor 2 rejoins the bearded man to ask what’s next – that things get really out of control, and I stopped being able to predict events. Héctor shows prodigious backbone in ensuring that the timeline plays out according to past (or future) events, and though I came to understand why he would do a particular thing (forcing the girl to strip naked in the forest, for example, so that Héctor 1 will see her and enter the woods), it didn’t stop me from questioning his willingness to do it. The film draws you in with intrigue, and pushes you away with disgust, and you are left in a paralytic limbo.

The budget is small, but it’s well-shot, with excellent use of lighting, editing, and sound to create a highly suspenseful atmosphere. Beyond the machine itself, there are almost no special effects, and it’s always refreshing to watch a film that relies on the strength of a story or idea instead of computer-generated wizardry. Plus, the constraints of the budget make the story more streamlined; a film with more characters who each bring relationships, actions, and variables to bear might have made for a meatier time travel plot, but they also would have muddied the narrative water. This way, the film is small enough that every single detail is important, and given its due. The way Héctor carries the painting in the opening shots of the film? Important. A scream heard in the trees? That will circle back around later. Even Héctor’s use of scissors to stab himself in the arm is a deliberate choice, those same scissors becoming an instrument by which Héctor both damns and frees himself later.

The performances aren’t particularly noteworthy – Karra Elejalde is stone-faced as the paunchy Héctor, and Vigalondo keeps his performance subdued as well – but the script is. There is a careful measuring-out of information, which strings you along – you think you know where the film is going next, and then it yanks the wheel sideways. In keeping your attention, a fine balance is struck between letting you figure things out and feel smart for doing so, and posing impossible questions that nobody can answer. You might shout at the screen as I did, condemning Héctor for his actions, but who can say why exactly Héctor does the things he does? Does he have a choice at all? It’s in this question that the film’s central theme reveals itself: Timecrimes isn’t about time at all, but free will. Héctor carries out the actions which will complete the time cycle, regardless of whom he hurts in the process (including himself – in all the senses that implies). Does he do this because he simply feels he has no choice, or is he not in control of his actions? Does Héctor make a grave mistake, which ends up costing an innocent girl her life, or was it all unavoidable anyway? This is what I meant about Vigalondo’s fatalism. Timecrimes strongly suggests that what’s going to happen is going to happen, and we might as well live with it. If this film is scary, it’s not because there’s a creepy bandaged assailant stalking the woods, it’s because it suggests that our lives are illusory and meaningless.

If you’ve taken my advice and watched Timecrimes before reading this review, I think you’ll understand why I feel it deserves more attention than it has received (especially at the international box office, where it garnered less than half of its production budget). It achieves a great deal within a limited scope, forcing me to ask myself some fundamentally frightening questions in my attempt to invest in the action. As a thriller, a low-budget genre experiment, and especially as a time-travel film, Timecrimes excels.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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