2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Detective stories are always better when they have a different kind of spin to them. We’ve had almost a century of hard boiled noirs, of all shapes and sizes, dominating the cinematic landscape. So, to find a new way to tell an old tale worth making a fuss over. “The Whistlers” is able to do that, and do it well. Among the less well known of the 2019 New York Film Festival titles, this is one of the best. An award winner at Cannes earlier this year, this movie is consistently surprising and always compelling.
“The Whistlers” has more than a hint of Martin Scorsese to it. Especially when one particular death comes about, the tone with which it happens has a real “Goodfellas” vibe to it. Perhaps it’s all the more noticeable with Scorsese’s “The Irishman” also playing at NYFF? Either way, writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu evokes Scorsese’s oeuvre, including “The Departed,” in crafting this delightfully twisted tale.
Romanian police officer Crist’si (Vlad Ivanov) time as a whistleblower for the mob may be running out. Under surveillance by his own department, the walls seem to be closing in. When Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), with whom he has a shady connection, suggests heading to La Gomera Island in the Canary Islands, she’s offering him a way to stay afloat. There, a whistle-based language is taught, one which would allow Cristi to operate undetected. This is of paramount importance, as an imprisoned man is the only one who knows where many millions of dollars are hidden. What’s more, the money belongs to someone with no qualms about murdering anyone in his way. So, against his better judgment, Cristi heads to the island.
On Gomera, Cristi begins to learn the coded language, sometimes at gunpoint. Time is of the essence, however, as Mexican gangster Paco (Agustí Villaronga) is the one who the money belongs to, and he’s planning on killing everyone if it isn’t returned to him. As Cristi works on the language, he continues to play all sides, hoping to figure out a way to get out of all this alive. Suffice to say, betrayal, double crosses, and various procedural work ensue, all leading to a surprisingly tender conclusion. Of course, not before blood is shed.
Part of the appeal is how much the cast commits to the premise. Vlad Ivanov and Catrinel Marlon both take their characters very seriously, even when they’re doing some unusual things. The ballet between them is seen early on, when Marlon’s Gilda needs to deceive surveillance on Ivanov’s Cristi and poses as a high-priced escort. It’s a funny scene, but also deeply tense. Ivanov and Cristi give a human touch to “The Whistlers,” making it more than just a procedural or just a noir.
Filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu manages to make a story about gangsters teaching a cop to whistle in code, fascinating. Consider that for a moment. How easily could this have been a disaster? Instead, it’s exciting, funny, and thoroughly well crafted. Porumboiu’s handling of tone is just perfect, brilliantly put forward during a tense scene toward the third act. Cristi and company are gathered in a building, betrayal and/or death is in the air. Then, a knock on the door, and it’s a filmmaker location scouting for a movie project. How this is handled is not just morbidly funny, but evokes Scorsese terrifically.
“The Whistlers” is way more fun than you’d expect. That alone sets it apart from the pack at NYFF this year. Cannes embraced it, though perhaps not to the degree it should have been. A potential Best International Feature nominee this year (it’s Romania’s official submission), this is a must see when it hits theaters early next year. It’s a terrifically crafted noir, plain and simple.
“The Whistlers” is distributed by Magnolia Films and will be released on February 28, 2020.