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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. Parasite By The Dashboard Light"
4 stars

Larry Cohen, for those of you unfamiliar with him, was a maverick American independent filmmaker who specialized in dreaming up outrageous cinematic premises and then bringing them to life via strange and often entertaining blends of humor, horror and wicked social commentary in films like “Q—The Winged Serpent” and “The Stuff,” which satirized fast-food culture by imagining that the new dessert sensation sweeping the country was actually an alien organism that was feeding off of those feeding upon it. While watching the odd new Argentinian thriller “4X4,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Cohen’s work because it too offers up a singularly loopy premise and then does a good job of milking it for humor and suspense for most of its running time. It does sort of fall apart in the final scenes but oddly enough, that also tended to be a feature of many of Cohen’s films as well.

In a well-manicured Buenos Aires neighborhood, small-scale thief Ciro (Peter Lanzani) comes across a top-shelf vehicle parked on the street and easily breaks into it, dislodging the stereo system and even pissing into the backseat in what he presumably believes is some kind of commentary against the rich. When he tries to get out of the car, however, he is unable to open the doors and when he tries to shoot out one of the polarized windows, they prove to be bulletproof and he winds up with the ricocheting bullet in his leg. Eventually, he receives a call from the vehicle’s owner, who calmly informs him that he has been robbed too many times before over the years without receiving any justice and has decided to take matters into his own hands by creating a prison on wheels that he has no intention of letting Ciro escape from and plenty of add-ones to ensure that his entrapment is as excruciating as possible.

Yes, the premise of the film is undeniably absurd—sort of the mashup of “Christine” and “Phone Booth” that you never imagined someone would dream up—and Mariano Cohn, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Gaston Duprat, wisely does not linger too long on the particulars of the car or how its owner, a doctor named Enrique Ferrari (Dady Brieva) came to trick it out in such an absurdly deadly manner. Instead, it just plunges on in a direct and straightforward manner, working on the presumption that people going to a movie about a literal automotive death trap either won’t ask too many questions or at least hold off on them until it is all over. Like Ferrari, he enjoys springing one nasty surprise after another on his prey and inspiring the audience to squirm right along with Ciro. Of course, the combination of a one-joke premise like this and the extremely limited playing field that most of the story unfolds on could have led to an increasingly tedious experience. Happily, the film manages to avoid this for the most part thanks to Cohn’s largely inventive approach to staging scenes within the confines of the car that keeps it from growing too repetitive and to the performance from Lanzani, who starts off as a classless jerk who deserves everything that he gets at first and then slowly begins to gain our sympathies.

The only time that “4X4” stumbles is in the final scenes, in which the film’s previously contained scope opens up significantly and the social underpinnings of the story come to the surface in a particularly clumsy manner. That said, while the conclusion of the film’s journey may come across as a bit disappointing, the trip up to that point is an ingenious and mostly effective locked room (okay, car) thriller that will provide viewers with plenty of alternately ingenious and excruciating twists within its claustrophobic parameters and will no doubt inspire them to check the doors carefully the next time they get into a car.

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originally posted: 02/05/21 08:44:09
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