by Benjamín Harguindey
Animal (2018) meshes one of Argentina’s most popular narrative themes – bottled-up outrage driving the long-suffering everyman to lash out against an unhelpful system – with one of its most controversial hot buttons, which is the exploitative relationship between social strata. To suggest it goes both ways, as does this movie, is taboo in Argentina.
The movie is written by Armando Bó and Nicolás Giacobone, both of them recurring collarators with Alejandro González Iñárritu, with whom they penned Biutiful (2010) and Birdman (2014). Their new movie apes their work with Iñárritu, from the mocked-up sequential shots to the miserable protagonist to the spiraling nature of the story, which is shaped like a maddening descent of sorts.
The plot centers around Antonio (Guillermo Francella), a well-to-do man, husband of Susi (Carla Peterson), loving father of three and manager of a meat-packing plant. That his life is impeccaby beset in bourgeois comfiness is made clear by the opening shot, which recaps the household’s morning ritual with unbearable smugness as the camera zooms in and out from one family member to another. All is well until Antonio goes out to jog across the Mar del Plata shoreline. He faints. Jump ahead two years later and he’s waiting for a kidney transplant that isn’t coming any time soon.
Once upon a nighttime Googling he comes across a man willing to sell his kidney for a house. Antonio meets up with the man and his pregnant girlfriend, a couple of bums named Elías and Lucy, and strikes a deal with them: he’ll buy them their dream house in exchange for one of Elías’ kidneys. Only they get greedy and start making bigger, more ambitious demands out of the desperate man, trying to squeeze him for all that he’s worth. Antonio obliges them to such an extent that they eventually start barging in unwanted into his life and that of his family.
Because Antonio caves to pretty much all of their whims there isn’t much in the way of conflict but rather toying with the notion of it. How far can he be pushed? Once they get to that point the movie sinks into a stalemate, with the two parties biding their time and waiting for the other side to back off. So while the movie carries a good sense of rhythm, the whole second act is wasted in a bunch of scenes that are either reiterative or just suck up time without ever really paying off, like Elías harrassing Antonio’s teenage daughter or the upstart Lucy playing femme fatale to Antonio.
Regarding the depiction of the two squatters, they’re played by Federico Salles and Mercedes de Santis about as well as the screenplay and Bó’s direction will let them. That he lies about in filth reading Bukowski is a cute contrivance that seems born out of uninspired middle-class assumption rather than fact, whereas Lucy looks and acts more like a quirky 20s flapper than an illiterate dropout. As for Antonio’s family, the kids act a bit stiff and Susi is reduced to the tired voice of reason Antonio just won’t heed.
There’s some merit in that the movie tries to see and relate to both sides of the issue of what everybody feels is theirs and what they’re owed by what they consider an unfair life. Elías and Lucy aren’t sympathetic – they make it plain that their objective in life is to get by with as little effort it requires of them – but then neither is Antonio, who mistreats his family and increasingly seems more concerned with getting away with crime than he is with his own well-being. Susi repeatedly begs of him to “trust the system”, to what degree is Antonio simply acting to spite the system – to get back at a lifetime of obedience and slights of fate?
From its heavy-handed intro of quiet middle-class bliss to its equally heavy-handed finale, featuring a cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, Animal is a disappointing experience that lives or dies by its ability to toy with the audience’s prejudices rather than engage them on an intellectual or emotional level. As a spiraling narrative it falters and meanders too much; as an acting tour de force Francella is reduced to playing the pity card just as often as his nemeses overact their scumminess.
It’s not that it’s a bad movie – from a technical standpoint the movie works like clockwork, and the topography of wintertime Mar del Plata is expertly used to convey mood and atmosphere – but Animal feels a little too smug for its own good and while you can count some very good scenes in it the sum total isn’t better. Not by a long shot.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).