Tag Archives: C

ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST

It’s an old B-movie plot: a callow young guy is seduced by the lure of wealth and love and turns to the dark side, with unhappy results. The scenario is repeated again by Andrea di Stefano, but what makes his treatment of it more interesting than most is the fact that in this case the evil that sucks the protagonist in is a historical figure, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. And he’s played with relish by Benicio Del Toro.

The protagonist of the picture, however, is a fictional guy named Nick Brady (Josh Hutcherson), a Canadian who’s come to the Colombian beaches in the late eighties to give surfing lessons. It doesn’t take long for him to fall for the local beauty Maria (Claudia Traisac), who turns out to be Senator Escobar’s niece. Soon they’re engaged, and Escobar will give Nick a job at his palatial estate. He also takes care of the gang of brothers who’d harassed Nick, his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) and Dylan’s wife Anne (Ana Girardot) at the beach—with the most extreme prejudice. Nick’s not the brightest of bulbs, but even he begins to have qualms about the tactics of Pablo’s men, though Maria, still more obtuse, remains unwilling to accept the truth.

All this is presented in the form of a protracted flashback inserted between events of 1991, when Escobar is about to go to prison in a deal with the government following a near civil war and is making plans to stash his loot so that it will be waiting for him when he leaves jail. Among the trusted associates he chooses to drive crates of cash and diamonds to hiding places around the country is Nick, who’s assigned to meet with a man who will take him to a cave where the stuff can be stored and the entrance blown shut with explosives; he’s then to kill the man to keep the secret. Unfortunately, the man is ill and sends his young nephew Martin (Micke Moreno), who does his job admirably but whom Nick is loath to dispose of afterward.

That sets up the last act of the film, in which Nick has to face off against a slew of men in Pablo’s employ, most notably ruthless enforcer Drago (Carlos Bardem). This scenario just reinforces the fact that Nick is amazingly slow on the update—perhaps with his apparently limited schooling his unaware of the fate of pyramid builders—but worse it requires him to suddenly become not only a wily, street-smart guy but a pretty fair shot to boot. To say the last reel strains credulity is an understatement, especially since Hutcherson—who’s certainly persuasive as a boneheaded, lovesick cipher—can’t pull off the transformation into action hero.

Nonetheless the movie, as implausible as it grows, benefits from one strong element: Del Toro, who portrays Escobar as a seedily charming fellow whose sleepiness masks an underlying streak of cruelty and can abruptly explode with menace. Moreover, it situates him in a society that’s depicted like a South American version of Prohibition-era Chicago, where a strongman’s Robin Hood-like sharing of the wealth can make him a popular hero among ordinary folk, and give him a degree of economic and political power so great that he can feel free to challenge the so-called authorities with near-impunity. Del Toro’s performance is marked by what might be ironically called a flashy understatement, in which he rarely rants but always comes across as threatening even when he’s smiling. That he’s a fawning family man somehow makes him all the more frightening, and when toward the close he finally explains that he’s only following the law of nature, and indicates his strange relationship to God, it’s genuinely chilling.

It’s a pity that the rest of “Paradise Lost” isn’t worthy of him. Strip away the historical trappings—which one can certainly argue are tastelessly used—and there’s not much left to admire beyond Carlos Conti’s production design, Luis Sansans’ evocative cinematography, and Moreno’s turn as an eager young husband and father who doesn’t have an inkling of the trouble his uncle has gotten him into. “Escobar” gives Del Toro the chance to shine, but it just uses his portrait of a modern-day monster as backdrop to a pulp B-movie plot that Hutcherson isn’t equipped to carry convincingly.

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT

Apparently matters haven’t changed all that much for NYC heroin addicts over the past forty-five years, at least if “Heaven Knows What” and “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971) are anything to go by. The early Al Pacino picture portrayed a junkie couple on the way to oblivion. So does this new cinema vérité effort from Josh and Benny Safdie, based on an unpublished memoir-novel by Arielle Holmes. Holmes plays a version of herself named Harley, who’s hopelessly in love with a self-absorbed, self-destructive addict named Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who treats her—and everybody else, it appears—like dirt.

That, in fact, is the way Ilya, a scraggly-haired, snub-nosed guy in a trench coat, is treating Harley as the movie opens. She’s apologizing to him profusely for some unexplained slight, and he harangues her, saying that if she really loved him, she’d have killed herself by now. So she scrounges up a razor blade and slits her arm as he looks on. No sooner does she do so than he’s screaming for an ambulance, and Harley is taken off to Bellevue, where she gets into altercations with other patients.

Released after treatment that clearly hasn’t taken, Harley refuses to let chunky Skully (Necro), who insistently follows her around, become her new escort, instead taking up with Mike (Buddy Duress), a scruffy, voluble drug dealer who clearly uses his own product. Mike expects Harley to work for her daily doses, but often gives in to her pleas for a fix even when she’s failed to go out and beg for the cash to cover the cost. They often crash in the apartment of an old lady who apparently has trouble making ends meet and charges a few bucks a night for a bed, offering sympathy and not-very-good advice, as well as a blind eye to her guests shooting up.

Eventually Ilya reenters the picture, as surly and brutal as ever, and following a scuffle between the two men Harley abandons Mike to go off with him again. After they get together a bit of cash by stealing stuff from convenience stores and then reselling it to the owners of street kiosks, they board a bus for Florida—a turn that’s perhaps intended as a nod in the direction of “Midnight Cowboy.” But Ilya proves as unreliable as ever, and soon Harley finds herself alone again.

“Heaven Knows What” is undeniably potent stuff, the mixture of professional actors like Jones, who enters into his role with frightening intensity, and Duress, a street guy who holds the screen with a natural charisma, coming off very well. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams certainly captures the grittiness of the piece, and the background score, largely made up of Isao Tomita’s electronic versions of pieces by Debussy but occasionally adding some harder bits, gives the grungy tale an appropriately off-putting tone.

Yet while one can certainly admire the way in which Holmes and the Safdies immerse us in the hellish world of these characters, the result is really nothing more than a wallow in nihilism. We’re told nothing about how these people came to this point—indeed, apart from Harley, Ilya and Mike, who form a weird sort of co-dependent romantic triangle, they barely register at all except as sketches; even Skully is little more than a vaguely irritating presence. There’s a harrowing immediacy to them, but nothing more than that, since they don’t really change. As a result there’s very little narrative thrust to the film; the various incidents basically lead nowhere—which is perhaps the point, but not much of one.

And it’s certainly difficult to muster much sympathy for any of the characters, since there isn’t the slightest indication that they have any desire to change anything about their lives, except perhaps their locale. One can feel sorrow and pity over the fact that they’re trapped, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a trap of their own making, and one from which they seem to have no wish to escape.
Still, it’s hard to forget Harley’s desperation, Mike’s rumpled pragmatism, and especially Ilya’s dark magnetism—or the hopelessness and degradation in which they spend their days and nights.

“Heaven Knows What” offers an incisive portrayal of life among the homeless addicts who form an often ignored subculture of urban America. But it’s presented in the form of a grim, meandering series of snapshots rather than a meaningful narrative.