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Timecrimes   B+

Magnolia Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Writer: Nacho Vigalondo
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Bárbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo, Candela Fernández.

Review by Rob Vaux

Timecrimes is small enough and modest enough to need little more than a supremely nifty idea to work. If developed properly and arrayed successfully, it can transform such a low-budget effort into something memorable. Director Nacho Vigalondo had less than two-and-a-half million dollars to play with, but because his work is built on such a solid foundation, the results feel right at home with far more lauded (and expensive) science-fiction films.

The trick, as the director explained, is to keep its plot conceptual rather than grandiose. His is a time-travel story swathed in the banality of everyday life, yet girded with the tense and extraordinary inevitability possessed by the best tales of this ilk. He finds moments of humor and pathos as well, combining them with suspense and abstract musings into a remarkably tight package. It helps that -- with a few exceptions -- other time-travel movies never really grapple with the logical loopholes of their scenario. Cause-effect paradoxes, multiplying alternate universes, the dangerous mucking with fundamental concepts that hold eternity together... too often these become garnishes to mundane plot complications: addressed, to be sure, but rarely fully explored. Timecrimes takes its cue from one of the exceptions -- Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys and its predecessor La Jetée -- in treating the logic questions as the main course rather than the garnish.

To describe the plot is to give away the trick to a certain extent. It begins with a middle class Spanish schlub named Héctor (Karra Elejalda) at the end of a not particularly good day. His wife (Candela Fernández) goes out to rustle up some dinner while he sits in the backyard with a pair of binoculars trained on the nearby woods. Suddenly, he spots a nude girl (Bárbara Goenaga) sauntering through the underbrush. Moving closer to investigate, he is set upon by a terrifying man whose face is wrapped in bandages and who has apparently killed the girl. He chases Héctor through the woods to the odd scientific laboratory on the other side, where -- wouldn't you know it -- groundbreaking experiments against the laws of God and man are taking place. Héctor soon finds himself sent one hour back in time, giving him a chance to save the girl if he can act quickly enough.

The middle third suffers from a strange sort of lethargy, as the chronologically displaced Héctor moves through the same sequences from a different perspective and we see the answers to various mysterious hooks set up during his initial journey into the woods. As an intellectual exercise, it's vaguely interesting, but it lacks the urgency required to really grab us. Vigalondo, however, is far too smart to simply leave things at that. What at first seems to be just narrative acrobatics is actually prep work for the last 20 minutes: a brilliant series of reversals which sets the whole film on its ear. I daren't reveal the specifics here, but its corkscrew structure elevates the premise to another level: providing not only the right sense of closure but also an intellectual dilemma that maintains its fascination long after the house lights have gone up. Timecrimes will mostly likely reward multiple viewings immeasurably, making it a shoo-in for the midnight cult circuit and/or feverish home viewing.

Beyond the structure itself, Vigalondo maintains a pair of secret weapons to help keep his scenario sharp. One is the notion that Héctor understands his position completely and that -- if he doesn't behave in certain ways at certain times -- he could literally destroy the universe. It brings a dose of bizarre levity to the proceedings as he engages in a number of false starts and tries to remember the way things should have gone when he wasn't paying especially close attention the first time around. The other is the surprisingly ordinary quality of the time machine itself. It looks like an industrial storage vat: a bit technical, but nothing a 30-minute training seminar won't clear up. The process of time travel is instantaneous and fireworks-free; Vigalondo's shooting style conveys a sense of normality belied by the surreal sight of Héctor stalking himself. The lack of special effects ironically heightens that plausibility, rendering the storyline reasonably airtight.

All that comes in addition to the smart pacing, dark humor, and a sense of humanistic tragedy which Timecrimes deploys in expert fashion. In the end, it really has nothing more than a clever idea, but by spinning that oyster into such a rich and varied stew, Vigalondo signals his ability to handle topics considerably more complex. On the other hand, that would mean not making fun little gems like this one... and what a terrible shame that would be.

Review published 12.15.2008.

Also read: Q&A: Nacho Vigalondo.

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