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White Coffin
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by Jay Seaver

"Moves almost quick enough to outrun making no sense."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm tempted to call the thing that makes "White Coffin" an incredibly frustrating horror movie "video-game writing", but I haven't played them in a while and I have friends who tell me its alternation of action with just enough dialogue to send the player off on another mission isn't exactly state of the art any more. Director Daniel de la Vega winds up having to make Adrián & Ramiro García Bogliano's script fly with sheer craft, and while he's got a fair amount of that, it can only get him so far.

It opens with young mother Virginia (Julieta Cardanali) driving across Argentina with her daughter Rebeca (Fiorela Duranda), on the way to a new home, although a phone call from Rebeca's father indicates this may not be entirely within the terms of their custody arrangement. That may be moot; while eating at a rest stop, Rebeca disappears, as does one of a number of kids on a school trip. Virginia remembers a truck pulling out and chases after it, only to have an ambulance try to run her off the road.

She hits a pretty dead end, but fortunately a mysterious man (Rafael Ferro) shows up to say that if a mother finds the White Coffin and brings it to a certain place then maybe she stands a chance - but not why. No, he'll just drive her a little way, get out of the car, and say she has to do this unexplained thing on her own for unexplained reasons. It devolves into a tremendously stupid game that involves keeping three women so ignorant as to require prompting phone calls and ready to turn on each other, facing mortal danger despite the fact that the whole thing doesn't make any sense if they don't get to the end relatively intact. It's one of those stupid horror movie plots where, even if you acknowledge that the goals of the villains make some sort of sense, this is a ridiculous way to go about it.

The general way you deal with that as a filmmaker is to move so fast that none of these problems can stick in the viewers' brains, and de la Vega does his best on that. This movie is a trim 70 minutes, and when he shifts into high gear, those moments show a guy with great action instincts and the ability to execute. The car chase where Virginia chases down the truck with her daughter is great, for instance, and there's a nasty immediacy to confrontations so that, even if you know the thinking behind a given action is ridiculous, you can at least understand howthe characters may be caught up in the moment.

A lot of that, naturally, falls on Julieta Cardinali, whose Virginia is put through the wringer from early on. In some ways, she's at her best in the early parts of the movie, where Virginia's fear and determination both seem entirely natural, and she takes to the character being quick-witted, though sometimes a little careless, and prone to barreling ahead full speed, very quickly. She's still good later on, but she's got to react to "do this for reasons I won't say", and it's tough. She works well with both Eleonora Wexler and Verónica Intile as the two other parents/caretakers, each of whom focuses her intensity a little ways on opposite sides of what Cardinali does, perhaps hinting that she's the one with the sort of balance to get the job done.

It's worth mentioning - in this case, probably important - that there were problems with the digital files that the festival received for this film, meaning that the first act seemed to have an extraordinarily bizarre second soundtrack overlaid over the right one (you could feel the audience shifting from "that's a weird choice" to "this can't be right") and that there was enough of a pause while shifting to a screener to stop the momentum de la Vega was building. Maybe, without those situations, the film is less intriguing early on and there's less thinking how it doesn't work while it's still going on. It would probably still fall apart soon after the credits roll, but that's a lot better than while you're still watching the thing.

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originally posted: 07/21/16 05:12:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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