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Monster with a Thousand Heads, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Getting decent health care is a battle."
4 stars

As a strong proponent of the seventy-five minute thriller, I would likely approve of "A Monster with a Thousand Heads" even if it didn't turn out to be a quietly twisty film that is not just admirably compact, but which also uses that efficiency to keep a familiar story feeling new.

It opens with Memo, an husband and father with cancer, waking up in the middle of the night in tremendous pain; his wife Sonia (Jana Raluy) sees to him quickly, and the next morning is on the phone to his doctor and insurance company to try to get him back on the therapy where he had shown improvement. She runs into roadblocks, naturally, and when Dr. Villalba (Hugo Albores) blows her off, she and son Dario (Sebastian Aguirre) follow him home - and then, when he continues to dismiss her concerns, Sonia pulls a gun on him.

Before this has happened, director Rodrigo Plá and writer Laura Santullo have made it clear that this isn't going to be a tale where quiet, polite persistence eventually resolves issues for the better; as the scene where Sonia finds herself stonewalled by a receptionist ends with a voiceover of that woman giving testimony in court, a device that the filmmakers will return to on occasion, but which keeps the audience from being too enthusiastic about where things are going. After all, it may not escape the audience's notice, after Sonia and Dario make a couple more stops, that this is basically Richard Stark's The Hunter (adapted as Point Blank and Payback) with the insurance industry substituted for organized crime, something that many in the audience might find to be a lateral move. Knowing things are going to go wrong prevents it from playing as a revenge thriller from which the audience is supposed to derive glee.

There's still plenty of cause for delight, because Plá makes every moment count from the start, when Memo's attack happens in the dark and lights come on across the screen in stages, until help finally comes down a staircase half cut-off on the far side of the screen - the den converted to a bedroom on the ground floor suggests things are already very bad, as does assistance needing to come from the margins. The very shortness of the movie almost seems like a statement - the filmmakers cut out of sequences earlier than they might, letting the fates of certain characters dangle, never to be revisited, despite there being plenty of time, because the filmmakers are not going to deviate from Sonia working her way up the ladder to getting Memo the medicine he needs. Despite that, the perspective often orbits Sonia and Dario rather than keeping their point of view, casting her not just as a dedicated wife but a loose cannon to those she encounters.

Jana Raluy doesn't do this entirely by herself, of course - to a great deal of extent, it's in the way people play off her - but her Sonia is a nifty creation: Determined and focused, yes, but disarmingly kind and solicitous - it's not an easy thing to seem genuinely apologetic while holding a guy on someone, but Raluy manages it. It's a part that could easily be played for irony, but her sincerity is disarming, and leaves the audience more invested and uncertain than it might otherwise be. Other characters come and go, but Sebastian Aguirre is around for most of it, going from an embarrassed teenager to a tense accomplice, while Hugo Albores, Ursula Pruneda, and Emilio Echevarria all make strong impressions as the people Sonia and Dario encounter along the way.

The film doesn't exactly become a nail-biter in the way one might expect, but it's never less that compelling, touching on a lot of ideas in not a lot of time, and not always in the way one expects.

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originally posted: 05/27/16 00:52:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2015 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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