Marshland is a brilliantly executed crime thriller that grips throughout its whole 105 minutes. It has an arresting and original title sequence and its use of landscape and local culture is terrific. It’s only after several hours of reflection that I’m beginning to develop some doubts and they are mostly about the script. The trio of director Alberto Rodríguez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos plus cinematographer Alex Catalán, and indeed most of the creative team, have worked on two previous crime thrillers, all set in Andalusia. With Marshland they seem to have moved up a notch and the film has won several Goya Awards in Spain. The film’s USP is its historical setting in that difficult period following the death of Franco and the struggle to establish a real democracy in Spain at the end of the 1970s. The two detectives assigned to the case of a pair of missing teenage sisters in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir delta are a mismatched pair. Juan is an experienced officer from the fascist past and Pedro is a younger man committed to a democratic future. Juan has all the old tricks for ‘persuading’ witnesses to talk but Pedro, aiming to be ‘straight’, tends to annoy the locals with his challenges to ingrained ideas. The two men keep their distance from each other but they gradually learn how to work together. This latter is in some ways what the film is about – what must it be like to live in a country that has just ‘awoken’ after a nightmare of forty years? That person you meet, that person you work with might have all kinds of skeletons in their cupboards. How much do you need to compromise in order to get things done? Can you compromise and still stay true to a democratic ideal?
My slight worry about the film is that though this social sub-text should perhaps be the central concern of the narrative, instead the team seem more interested in making an American-style serial killer thriller. Most commentators have referred to the HBO series True Detective. I must be the only person who hasn’t seen the series which I understand begins in a similar environment in Louisiana and which also refers to a ‘cold case’ seventeen years ago that is now seen as re-opened with the detectives’ work on the original crime under scrutiny. Not having seen this model, I’m inclined to think of David Fincher’s work on Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which both have a similar sense of period design, an almost fetishised sense of crime scenes, and an anger and commitment that drives the isolated investigator. The problem for me with Fincher’s Hollywood models is that they tend towards being ‘personal’ rather than ‘societal’ in scope – they are like gruesome puzzle narratives in which the narrative agents (police, journalists) suffer. They don’t say that much directly about the society that produces the crimes.
I prefer to think about Marshland in relation to other European crime thrillers police procedurals, especially Mediterranean narratives from Southern France and Italy (although to be pedantic this is technically an ‘Atlantic’ thriller). What is most important is that the two detectives come into a conservative, almost feudal, community from outside. I’m not sure how clearly this is explained in the script (the subtitles may miss nuances). There is a reference to a letter Pedro has sent to the press criticising the slow pace of change. Juan’s problems are revealed later in the narrative. Certainly there is a sense that they are being sent to this rural backwater from Madrid rather than to big city cases. Pedro hopes that success in the case will get him posted to a Madrid investigations team. When the two men come into contact with the local Guardia Civil they begin to realise that there are unwritten rules about crimes and relationships that are not necessarily investigated thoroughly and that assumptions are made about witnesses and victims of crimes. Although they are generally very different in style and tone, there is something of Inspector Montalbano in the way in which the local police operate in a community where many people know a lot but aren’t talking. The detectives also realise that this case is being pursued (where others have been neglected) because ‘somebody knows somebody high up’.
I’m most tempted by the potential links between Marshland and the South Korean film Memories of Murder (2003). Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece also begins in the ricefields with crime scenes in ditches and fields and local police officers feeling overwhelmed before a ‘big city cop’ arrives. Bong’s film is also set in the past – the 1980s – and deals with the investigation of a real crime. But his film seems both more comic, more brutal and more stark but also more ‘humanist’ and much richer in its political analysis – and it refuses the conventional ‘narrative closure’ of the crime film. But perhaps I’m being unfair – there are other aspects of Marshlands that also contribute meanings and the central feature of the narrative – young girls wanting to leave the region to have a future and being easily seduced by those offering opportunities – is in itself part of a social critique. Juan has a medical problem and this may be the reason he appears to hallucinate. On two occasions a single bird appears in a scene incongruously – rather like the cow that Vinz sees in La Haine (France 1995). Or are these merely signifiers of the mystical nature of life in the marshes? There is a woman in the narrative who is said to have ‘second sight’ – and she certainly knows something about Juan. There is also the wonderful credits sequence which uses photographic images created by the artist Hector Garrido. These (see the image above) are aerial photographs of the delta that make it appear more like a painting of the human brain. According to this web review of the film the overall visual style is also informed by the work of Atin Aya who took photographs of the people and landscapes of Andalusia between 1955 and 2007.
The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. Besides the extraordinary aerial shots, the landscape gives opportunities for action framed in long shots across marshes and ricefields. The colour palette has been adjusted and the lashing rainstorms help to create the perfect environment for chases. One car chase was the most compelling I’ve seen for some time.
So, there is plenty to admire here and I’ll happily watch the film again to look out for the aspects of the script that I might have missed in the lead up to the action film ending. I think my real concern is with UK distributors and exhibitors. Marshland opened the week before Theeb, the Jordanian film I’ve written about on The Global Film Book blog. Both films are among the best I’ve seen this year but whereas Theeb opened in only 13 cinemas, Marshland has been much more visible in 32, playing once or twice a day in my nearest arthouse. I hope that Marshland becomes appreciated as a Spanish crime film rather than just an interesting subtitled alternative to Hollywood.
Marshland‘s UK trailer with examples of cinematography and use of aerial photographs: