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Film Review: To Kill a Man (★★★)

The Chilean entry for Oscar’s Foreign Language Film is a masterfully constructed effort…

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TKAMWe all have a breaking point. For some, it could come from merely an insult. For others, it takes years of injustice. In a civilized society, most people would never be in a situation where they’re agitated to carry out the action in this film’s title – To Kill A Man. In this brooding drama, Alejandro Fernández Almendras uses the psychology of murder to raise interesting questions. Mainly, what if your family’s survival depended on it?

This very question is asked of the central character Jorge (Daniel Candia). He’s a soft-spoken, simple man who enjoys watching television and playing his harmonica. The film opens with him completing a hard day’s work in the forest, returning home to celebrate his son’s birthday with the family. On his way to get party supplies however, he’s mugged by some thugs who take his cash and the insulin needle he needs for his diabetes. At dinner afterwards, we learn that these sort of crimes are a regular occurrence. Their once safe neighborhood in Chile has become increasingly vulnerable. Fed up, the son goes to stand up for his father and is almost killed by the group’s leader Kalule (Daniel Antivilo). The man is briefly incarcerated, but years later he returns to torment the family further, even sexually harassing the young daughter. After many pleas to the police, they come up against a wall of bureaucracy (at one point they’re even told to wait until Monday for their complaint). With rising fear for their safety, Jorge starts to feel the pressure of a father’s protective expectations.

This dilemma is the heart of To Kill A Man and it’s masterfully constructed. Under the direction and scripting of Almendras, it’s at once terrifying and utterly mesmerizing. The plot synopsis would seem to imply a revenge thriller, but this is more akin to psychological drama or even horror. The sound design plays a big role in this, creating a palpable sense of dread. The dark, empty nighttime is conveyed with the sound of crickets, while creaking doors evoke the anxiety surrounding a lurking predator. Likewise, the sparse but ominous score is strategically used. Such attention to detail is present in the cinematography too. Candia is often placed alone in the lower center of the frame, making the audience acutely aware of the pressures of his singular responsibility. Jorge is portrayed as a gentle man, so these technical aspects go a long way in supporting the screenplay’s plans for his character.
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Indeed, as much as the film’s craft creates great atmosphere, the main concern of the viewer is finding out how this man will react to his situation. In that regard the script is impressively efficient with a lean running time of 82 minutes. Yet those looking for a heart-pounding thrill ride – though it does have its tense moments – would be better off elsewhere. To Kill a Man intriguingly separates itself from the average revenge narrative by subtly pondering the psychological implications of violent retaliation, rather than racing to that conclusion. As such, the film goes in some fascinating directions. In this instance, revenge is neither a thrill or a relief. It’s a heavy burden. It may leave you wondering if the film’s title is missing a question mark.

In the end, the directing style and lead performance in To Kill A Man are almost too restrained to pack that extra punch (Daniel Candia barely ever raises his voice or acts with urgency) but there’s enough bravura filmmaking to make up for it. Its visual, aural and screenwriting craft truly achieve high standards throughout. If you like suspenseful, pensive dramas then this is a film for you.

To Kill A Man is currently available to Film Movement subscribers and will be released to non-members on December 2, 2014.

To Kill a Man is the Chilean submission for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane is a passionate cinephile and Tomatometer-approved film critic residing in Kingston, Jamaica. When he's not watching or writing about film, he spends much of his time wishing he lived in a big city. Shane is an avid world traveler and loves attending film festivals. He is a member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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