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El Rey de la Montaña (King of the Hill)

October 3, 2008

It’s been quite the year for bleak. The Mist kicked everything off, of course, in a sweeping epic sort of way, bringing a murky apocalypse to the East coast of America. Eden Lake took things way downscale and plopped you in the middle of a very unpleasant Middle England, and even the youngsters had their own version with Entry-Level Bleak 101 highlighting the Holocaust in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. And now, building on their terrific reputation for swift, lean and bloody thrillers, the Spanish have topped it all off (or bottomed it all out, perhaps?) with El Rey de la Montaña, as nasty, brutish – and short, at a whisker under 90 minutes – a rollercoaster ride as you could hope for.

Quim (now stop, it’s short for Joaquim, OK?)…Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is driving across the top of Northern Spain, trying to meet up with his estranged girlfriend who he has pissed off in some unforgivable way. He stops at a remote gas station to fill up and, because the Gents is bust, has to make do with the Ladies restroom. Here he bumps into Bea (María Valverde) a forward young thing who after just a moment’s thought invites him into her clutches for a Convenience Quickie against the wash basins. Some insight, perhaps, into Quim’s separation from his lady love is offered at this point as he smugly recovers from his breathless union, only to discover once he’s got his breath back that Bea has done a bunk with his wallet.

Irritated and angry, he heads out trying to find his thieving liaison, but she has too much of a start on him. Some time later he thinks he spots her car taking a minor road off the main highway, and he follows. He loses her quickly as the road starts to climb and head into mountains. Unsure whether or not to continue, he gradually loses faith and resolve and also himself, as suddenly he realises he doesn’t know where he is anymore.

Ahead, at the top of the rise he’s climbing there is a brief flash and an instant later a crash as something thumps into his car and he momentarily loses control. Pulling over, he sees a bullet hole in the wing above the front wheel. Looking up, he notices a dark figure approaching and, just as he works out through the eat haze that the silhouette is carrying a gun it is raised and fired, and he’s shot in the leg. Unbelieving and unthinking he scrambles back in the car and takes off, the car rattling and clanking in complaint, up a side road, only to find it blocked by a logging tractor. Returning at high speed along the track he’s just come along, the dark figure suddenly looms out once again, gun pointed straight at him, but he collides with it and sends it spinning into the air, coming down face first in the mud. Horrified, Quim takes off, losing himself even further in the woody mountain back roads, whereupon he finally intercepts Bea.

She’s complaining that she has a mysterious puncture, but Quim knows better and, changing it in double quick time he bundles her into her car and – at the sound of another shot, realises that the ordeal is far from over, as there is more than one gunman.

So begins a breathless and grim chase across the landscape, as Quim and Bea try to stay alive, evade the local police (who consider them dodgy in the extreme) and do their best to come to terms with the fact that they will have to learn to trust each other.

Just before the last act, the identity of the shooters (there are two) is revealed. Some might think this is a twist, but it’s pitched more as a significant development, as it doesn’t exactly undermine the film to that point, but it does give it a rather stark and gritty poignancy that you’d not have expected up to that point. The last twenty minutes ratchet up the tension massively and also the body count, which is accounted in a heartless and systematic manner, all the deaths presented in a completely unsympathetic and cynical fashion.

That seems mean-spirited, and it is, because deep within this nasty Spanish Deliverance there is a very dark message indeed. It’s there if you want it, if you have the heart to dig it out that is, but to do that you have to face down some pretty black home truths about how self-centred and divorced from humanity people have become. You can, of course, see this as simply an endurance adventure flick, but as the last frames roll it’s clear that El Rey wants you to sink down into the mud with it and realise that maybe none of us are worth saving.

Talked of recently in the same breath as Pan’s Labyrinth and El Orfanato, the only thing that El Rey shares with those movies is its Spanish roots, for where those two had a tingly redemptive feel at their conclusions, here there is no supernatural subtext, nor a happy ending on which to cling. That’s no spoiler, for very early on you realise that this won’t end well for someone, just that it’ll be a question of degree.

El Rey benefits from great visuals and a brilliantly stark soundtrack from David Crespo that captures the hopeless mood perfectly. The credits rolled on a stunned and silent audience when I saw it, and you know what, I’m betting that response wasn’t unusual; this is a film that will provoke a severe and lasting reaction wherever it’s seen, but I warn you, it won’t be a very pleasant one.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2008 11:11 am

    Oh for Christ’s sake! Why are all the films you rate highly the scary ones. I don’t like paying good money to be frightened. Frankly, even Man on Wire was a white-knuckle (or rather, sweaty-palm) ride for the last 30 minutes.

    What was the last film you’d give five stars to that isn’t horrific or violent?

  2. October 3, 2008 11:17 am

    Happy-Go-Lucky, John. And you’ve seen that, and concurred, I think. Hmm, it is a while ago, huh?

    I have a couple more visits planned this weekend, and neither are scary, so will keep you informed.

    A four star one I think you’d like is ‘Elegy’, but finding it now may be a touch difficult.

  3. October 3, 2008 11:27 am

    Oh yes, there was that. Happy-G0-Lucky was great.

    Elegy, hm, maybe add it to the Lovefilm list. (Along with, to return to Leigh, Topsy-Turvy, which I was reminded about this week on Palimpsest.) Will be interesting to see how, if at all, a filmmaker transmutes Roth’s turbo-powered prose into cinematic, er, stuff.

  4. October 3, 2008 11:37 am

    You did say you were thinking of begrudgingly heading out to ‘Tropic Thunder’?

  5. October 3, 2008 12:23 pm

    Oh yeah. Not this weekend though, as we have stuff on.

    And I hope one of the films you’re going to see over the weekend is Tarsem’s The Fall. Can’t wait to hear what you make of that!

  6. October 3, 2008 12:31 pm

    Ooh, it’s got the lovely Justine Waddell in it.

    Well, the problem with Tarsem is that he made ‘The Cell’ and it was atrocious, with many of the visual tricks seemingly repeated here (I’ve just seen the trailer and it’s all billowing silk sheets against desert backdrops).

    I dunno. I was thinking about ‘Brideshead’ and ‘How To Lose Friends’, actually.

  7. Pierredm permalink
    January 23, 2009 11:37 pm

    Soundtrack is really brilliant, you’re right…

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