Article/ Carancho: The Waking Dead

A new thriller from Argentina explores the murky world of insurance scams

by Ian Haydn Smith

Few films feature characters as tired as the main protagonists of Pablo Trapero’s superior thriller Carancho. They are not just exhausted with their lives – the drudgery of their existence – but are unable to muster enough energy to get through the day. Sosa is a lawyer who has lost his license to practise and is forced to earn a wage chasing down victims from the thousands of traffic accidents that take place on Argentina’s streets every year. Because of the insurance scam he is part of, he knows his clients will receive little of the eventual payout. Luján is a paramedic who takes drugs in order to stay awake and first encounters Sosa as she is dealing with the human detritus of a road accident. Their attraction to each other initially passes off as curiosity, but soon their feelings are made clear. However, not even the throes of passion can stop Luján drifting into unconsciousness the moment her head hits a pillow.

Unfolding mostly at night, or under the glaring fluorescence of an ER ward, Carancho withholds establishing shots in favour of close-ups on the characters and accident scenes. The effect places us at the heart of the drama, where we can feel the adrenaline of the paramedics’ work and the full horror of the ordeals they encounter on an hourly basis. Trapero shot the film with a RED digital camera, which gives images of the dimly-lit streets a sharply-defined crispness, recalling Michael Mann’s comment when he was shooting Collateral (2004), that he “wanted to see into the night”. The effect emphasises the characters’ weariness, particularly Sosa’s whose drawn features – the result of his desperation to work his way out of the corruption ring – recalls Orwell’s description of Winston Smith in 1984 as being “gelatinous with fatigue”.

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the two leads in convincing us of the world they are enmeshed in. Martina Gusman returns for a third time to work with Trapero – her husband – after Born and Bred (2006) and Lion’s Den (2008). Once again, she gives a visceral performance, as a seemingly self-sufficient woman slowly cracking under the pressure of her life. Ricardo Darín, best known for his roles in Nine Queens (2000) and the Oscar-winning The Secret in their Eyes (2009) extends his range here, the look of defeat in his face slowly transforming into hope at the thought that, with enough luck, he may be able to scam his own employers and abscond with Luján to a new and better life.

Trapero’s character-driven piece continues in the vein of legal thrillers such as Michael Clayton (2007) and particularly Sidney Lumet’s 1982 drama The Verdict (comparisons could also be made with Martin Scorsese’s 1999 misfire Bringing Out the Dead). These films focus their action around the moral ambivalence of a central character. However, where Carancho finds its edge is in the fact that because we are a long way from Hollywood, we are never quite sure that these two lost souls will achieve their dream – that of a place where they can finally rest and sleep in peace.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Carancho screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 16 March