Seven years after his mesmerizing sci-fi drama on extraterrestrial sex, “The Untamed,” genre-defying Mexican auteur Amat Escalante switches gears once again to try his hand at a sharp-edged, quasi-detective story with “Lost in the Night.” His approach expectedly deviates from a straightforward whodunit. Escalante rejects both simplified villainy and stainless heroism, crafting individuals with clear motivations who never stop to consider their actions through a moral filter. The result is an at times jarring but always intriguing enigma that escapes facile classification, especially because it tends to veer into absurdism.
In just a handful of years since his breakout role in Fernando Frías de la Parra’s “I’m No Longer Here,” Juan Daniel García Treviño has become a familiar face in Mexican cinema, usually playing a member of a criminal organization. Here, Escalante pushes against such typecasting and places him on the righteous side of the fence, as Emiliano, a regret-ridden son of an activist mother who was abducted — and likely murdered — by the corrupt local police as retribution for opposing a Canadian mine in their rural town.
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When asked to carry out custodian duties at a wealthy family’s home, Emiliano agrees. He
suspects the owners know what happened to his mother. The property itself, a piece of modernist architecture without lavish finishings, sticks out from the lakeside landscapes that Adrian Durazo photographs in all their deceptive, sun-dappled splendor. The interior is adorned with the pretentiously in-your-face creations of one of its occupants, artist Rigoberto Duplas (Fernando Bonilla). A tour of the spacious rooms early on serves as Escalante’s warning about the out-of-touch antics of his privileged white characters.
Best known for her performances in soap operas, Uruguayan-born Mexican actress Bárbara Mori takes on a rare art-house job as approachable singer, actress, and youthful matriarch Carmen Aldama — an inspired casting decision on Escalante’s part. Soaking in ennui, Carmen’s teenage daughter Mónica (Ester Expósito) passes the time live-streaming her fake suicide attempts for views until she meets Emiliano. The pack of cosmopolitans from Mexico City face harassment from the Aluxes, a religious sect in the area bent on destroying Rigoberto, whose provocative art directly targeted their leader accused of pedophilia.
Despite his seemingly welcoming employers’ attempts to keep him at ease, Emiliano senses the poison hiding beneath their smoke-and-mirrors lifestyle. As the character is written (and excellently performed by García Treviño), we doubt whether the young man finds himself ill-equipped to navigate the lack of sincerity around him or if he is completely aware of it. Just as audiences think they’ve figured out certain key dynamics, Escalante surprises and gives the bad guys an opportunity to express remorse.
Adding to the intriguing dissonance, death and desire are intertwined in “Lost in the Night,” and adolescent lust cohabits with real physical danger throughout Emiliano’s ordeal. The score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (“Stranger Things”), straddling eeriness and notes of light, intensifies that uneasy in-between mood.
Escalante’s unflinching point-of-view perseveres, as a close-up of an erect penis or a scene of brutal, unprovoked violence make clear. But this time around, he directs his attention toward more ambiguous narrative territory. Co-written with his brother Martín (in their first collaboration on the page since “The Bastards”), the screenplay introduces multiple subplots — several become causalities of time and ambition, even as they widen the story’s scope, especially in regard to Emiliano’s place in the community.
In the film’s defining scene, mohawk-wearing Rigoberto suggests he and Emiliano collaborate on a heady, site-specific art installation based on how the latter’s life of trauma intersected with the other’s creative journey. The young man’s prompt, angry refusal cuts through the nonsense like a bluntly wielded blade. Emiliano’s reaction to such a ludicrous proposition calls attention to the way patronizing elites coopt the real pain of those in the lower classes for their own self-aggrandizing projects, even as they convince themselves that they are benefiting those in more precarious situations. Escalante’s critique also extends to cinema that pretends to give a voice to the “voiceless.”
Here, the behavior of the rich outsiders exists in a different register from that of Emiliano and his girlfriend Jazmín (María Fernanda Osio). Their economic status grants them permission to carry out overdramatic displays of emotion, to perform self-victimization and, eventually, to exonerate themselves for their crimes. Who would ever believe they could be involved in heinous activities? The actors playing the well-off clan strike an over-the-top wavelength of artificiality while still remaining calibrated enough to avoid clichés. They’re in perpetual contrast with García Treviño’s grounded, naturalistic performance.
What everyone shares, both the Haves and the Have Nots, is that they all believe themselves to be justified in their by-any-means-necessary pursuits of justice or self-preservation, and that makes for a fascinating conundrum when these two self-serving forces collide.
Escalante refuses to take us in any direction we may anticipate from one scene to the next, gleefully subverting what we expect the people on-screen to do while once again bypassing strict realism for formal mischief. That approach gives the film its beguiling and biting tone, and though Escalante doesn’t land all of his audacious summersaults, the result feels invigorating and distinct. Highly unconventional as investigation movies go, “Lost in the Night” ultimately examines guilt and how people accept, evade or even try to profit from it. In Escalante’s estimation, the truth only matters if it comes from a source people are willing to believe.
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