Feb 18, 2009

King of the Hill [15]

Dir: Gonzalo López-Gallego
King of the Hill has a relatively traditional three-act structure. For the first two of those acts it appears that you are watching something very special indeed, but then along comes the third, and the film all but collapses, changing focus, becoming conventional and losing almost all interest in the space of just a few seconds.

The concept is stunning. Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) pulls over for petrol, finding that the men’s room isn’t working he goes in the ladies and meets Bea a beautiful young woman (Maria Valverde) who makes love to him, and robs him. Spotting her car on the road he follows her, but gets lost. Then a shot rings out and his car is shot. This sets the stage for an incredibly tense hour of film, as Quim and then Bea, with whom he meets up again, find themselves pursued by an unseen sniper, determined to hunt them down.

The violence of these first two acts is brief, and not terribly explicit, but it’s the grinding tension that gets to you. The threat is ever present; it can arrive from any direction, at any time. It can toy with you or kill you outright. Gonzalo López-Gallego doesn’t have a lot to work with here, a tiny cast, and the woods and yet he keeps you on the edge of your seat with both the concept and the execution. Long shots showing Quim and Bea out in the wide open space of the woods hammer home just how visible they are, and just how stacked the odds are against them. Several times López-Gallego lets you think you know when a shot is going to ring out, before springing one on you just as don’t expect it. It’s a beautiful balancing act and for an hour your pulse is barely allowed to drop.

There are also a couple of decent performances from Leonardo Sbaraglia and Maria Valverde.  They are of course limited by the fact that they spend most of the movie running away, but they each manage to carve out enough sympathy that you hope they succeed, which is about all you can ask in a movie like this.

It’s such a terrible shame that, as soon as the movie’s big secret becomes clear, it descends into tedium and familiarity. The last twenty minutes of the film also changes style, in a way that I shouldn’t talk about for fear of spoilers, but which annoyed me with it’s self-advertising ‘cleverness’. The problem is that it’s the mystery that makes the film work, and the second you remove that mystery the film immediately ceases to work. Still, an hour of great cinema is an hour more than you’ll usually see these days.

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