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Lucking Out
by Lucius Shepard
September 16, 2003

Every year I say the same thing: This is the worst year yet for movies. The year 2003 is no exception. Here we are (at the time I write) in September and I can’t think of single studio picture that merits Oscar consideration . . . though I’m certain the Christmas season will bring a surfeit of contenders every bit the equal of the fabulous Richard Gere-Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle that won last year’s accolade, a musical extravaganza that set my toes to tap, tap, tapping and my stomach to upchuk, chukking. It’s been an especially gruesome year for the English-language genre film, a year dominated by comic-book adaptations that have ranged from the execrable League of Extraordinary Gentleman, which features Sean Connery’s woefully inept Sean Connery impression, to the unrelentingly dimwitted Daredevil, which offers the latest proof of Ben Affleck’s flat affect, and—a moderate high point—to the merely tolerable X2. The most palatable among the year’s various horror films has been 28 Days Later, a tarted-up British B-picture whose evocative mise-en-scene obscures to a degree its debt to George Romero’s zombie movies and provides a particularly stirring first hour, but is nothing to shout about.

Then, of course, there are the Matrix sequels, for those who care to endure them.

The remainder of the year, with the possible exception of Peter Jackson’s final chapter of Tolkien’s Ring trilogy and Gothika, a supernatural thriller featuring an interesting cast and helmed by talented French director Mathieu Kassovitz, promises very little: werewolves versus vampires; macho Roman Catholic priests confronting supernatural terrors with crosses and prayers; the usual gaggle of haunted houses, assorted less-than-creepy CGI monsters, and sequels documenting the evisceration of attractive young sexually active people. And in years to come we can look forward to cinematic treats that will doubtless embody all the intelligence and imagination that informs the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a picture produced by that noted auteur Michael Bay, perpetrator of the twin horrors Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, who tells us with full-on sanctimony that his version of Chainsaw—will not have any of the gore that made the original so yucky.

As you may recall, Tobe Hooper’s version, while disturbing, contained nary a drop of gore.

While Hollywood continues unabashed and unabated on its dumb and dumber course, filmmakers in various other countries are busy developing a strong genre tradition. Korea, Thailand, and Japan spring immediately to mind in this regard. As does Spain. It could be argued that in recent years, led by directors such as Alejandro Amen�bar (Open Your Eyes) and Jaume Balaguer� (Los Sin Nombre, an adaptation of Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless), Spain has produced the most interesting and well-crafted thrillers of any nation in Europe, movies that confront complicated philosophical questions as well as generating suspense. To that list must now be added the name of first-time director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, whose film Intacto is the most original thriller of recent vintage made in any country or language, a stylish mixture of magical realism and hard-boiled mystery that might have been co-authored by Jorge Luis Borges and James M. Cain.

The idea underlying Intacto is that luck is not the operation of chance, but rather is itself a force, an energy, that resides in every man, woman, and child to one degree or another. This force is so tangible a thing, it can stolen by a certain people, who themselves constitute an underworld—indeed, a subculture—of gamblers whose games are somewhat untraditional. Luck for them is the coin they wager as they compete against one another for the ultimate prize: the opportunity to engage in a duel to the death with Samuel Berg, known as “The Jew,” a Nazi death camp survivor who is the self-proclaimed luckiest man alive—essentially, the god of luck. Berg, played with immense gravitas by Max Von Sydow, resides in a bunkerlike apartment beneath his casino, which is situated amid a lava flow somewhere in the Canary Islands, a lunar landscape that echoes the bleakness of the gamblers’ lives. Their ability to steal luck, you see, is both a gift and an affliction, for in times of great peril they—inadvertently or otherwise—steal the luck of those around them and thus cause their deaths.

The movie opens with Berg sitting in his apartment, his head covered by a black cloth, waiting for a man who was won the right to challenge him. When the man enters, he’s given a handgun that holds five bullets and one empty chamber. He aims at Berg’s head and fires. Click. The cylinder is spun, the gun is handed to Berg. He fires and the man falls dead. The corpse is then wrapped in a plastic sheet and removed. Thus end all challenges to Berg, but he derives no great pleasure from victory. Indeed, he seems to yearn for death. Over the years, the cost attendant upon the gift that allowed him to survive the Nazis has caused him to rethink the advisability of remaining alive.

The chief duty of Berg’s protégé and assistant, Federico (Eusebio Poncela), is to steal the luck of big winners at the casino’s tables—this he accomplishes merely by touching them. It’s a pretty soft sinecure, but Federico wants to go out on his own and when Berg discovers this, he seizes Federico’s wrist and steals his luck. The film jumps ahead seven years and we discover that Federico has become a sort of talent scout, seeking out gifted players for the underground gambling circuit. In his search, he stumbles across Tom�s (Leonard Sbaraglia), a man whom he believes may become the instrument of his vengeance against Berg. Thomas is the sole survivor of a plane crash in which over two hundred people died. He is also a bank robber. When we first see him, sitting in the wreckage of the plane, he has dozens of packets of currency taped to his torso. On waking in his hospital room, he finds a police detective, Sara (Monica Lopez), waiting to arrest him. Sara is herself blessed/cursed with the ability to steal luck and is scarred both physically and emotionally as a result of a car wreck that she survived by draining the luck of her husband and child during the moment of impact. (Plotwise, her appearance may seem a bit pat, but Fresnadillo, employing a darkly eloquent visual style and an elliptical narration reminiscent of his countryman Amen�bar, manages to obscure such tactics of convenience.) Federico helps Tom�s escape Sara’s clutches and thereafter begins to school him in the game, honing his weapon against Berg by entering him in competition after competition against other gifted luck-thieves. As with M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a film with which it shares more than thematic content, Intacto concerns itself on one level with survivor guilt. Sara’s pursuit of Tom�s and Federico not only serves to create suspense, but also generates an atmosphere of grief-stricken obsession that seems to cling to all the gamblers. Of their number, only Alejandro (Antonio Dechent), a matador who no longer finds the bull ring a challenge, plays for the thrill. The rest appear motivated, to one degree or another, by the desire to rejoin those whom they have survived, and view their survival as less a product of good fortune than as a cosmic joke. Luck has corrupted them, poisoned their souls, and, like Berg, their icon, though they may not yet be prepared to die, they have forgotten how to live.

If it’s Sara’s compulsiveness that infuses Intacto with its noirish moodiness and grit, it’s the games themselves that provide the picture’s exotic element. The first competition that Tom�s enters involves having his hair brushed with water that has been steeped in molasses, then being placed in a room with two other players and a large molasses-loving stick insect. The lights are switched off and the bug flies about the room, eventually settling on the head of the winner. In the film’s best set piece, a number of contestants are blindfolded and then induced to run full-out through a dense forest, the winner being the one who does not head-on into a tree. Each contest is played for high stakes—luxurious houses and so forth—but of course the true purpose of all the competitions is to winnow the competitors down to one who will challenge Berg for the highest stakes of all in his amped-up version of Russian Roulette.

For all its virtues, Intacto may prove ultimately disappointing to those viewers accustomed to the more hyper-emotive narrative style of Hollywood movies; but since the remake rights have been snapped up, it’s likely that they will soon be able to see the story done in an overblown, multiplex-friendly manner, with Tom Cruise, perhaps, as Thomas and Berg played by the increasingly somnolent Anthony Hopkins. As it is, the ultra-sleek visuals and the single-mindedness of Intacto’s characters combine to enforce an overarching mood of detachment. Fresnadillo, it seems, does not want us to connect with his characters as much as to understand their detachment, to feel their separation from the human herd, and so he seeks to engender a certain detachment in his audience. A middle ground allowing for some slight empathetic audience reaction—using Sara’s tragedy, say, to affect us emotionally—might have broadened the film’s appeal. And yet, being so detached, the viewer is enabled to better appreciate the perversity and cruelty of the milieu Fresnadillo is presenting, and, by association, to recognize that perversity and cruelty is the ocean in which most of us swim, protected from its zero temperature only by a thin clothing of illusion and luck.

I’ve spent a good bit of verbiage in this and previous columns ranking on Hollywood—as time-wasting a pursuit as lecturing a gerbil on table manners. Yet whenever I see a movie like Intacto, I’m always amazed that we didn’t make it first, that we haven’t mined the story-rich environments of our own casino landscape and come up with films that bear a stamp of originality, rather than churning out a sludge of caper flicks. Not long ago, there were far more American films remade by foreign production companies than the reverse. Now that trend has turned around and it’s Spain, France, Korea, et al, who are leading the way. Greed and stupidity have fostered this lack of adventurousness—that’s not hard to understand. But it’s harder to understand why those who direct and produce American remakes of foreign films tend to scrub away the qualities that made them attractive to the studios in the first place. It’s as if they’re kids who’ve planned a really cool trick, grown afraid nobody will get it, and so they explain it to everyone in advance, thus spoiling the effect. Usually when I see a movie that provokes such thoughts, I don’t dwell on the subject. However, Intacto seems such an American story, so American in its compulsions (though given a Spanish accent), and there have been so many foreign movies recently that play like American movies overdubbed in a foreign language (Open Your Eyes, City of God, Amores Perros, et al), I began to wonder if creativity, like luck, might not be a tangible force, and rather than having it stolen from us, we were yielding it up, just letting it waft away, infecting the world not only with the worst of our culture, but also the best of it, and as a result our country was becoming the true cultural victim, growing gray and inert and sparkless . . . Throw in a plotline and you might be able to transform that notion into a decent movie.

Maybe some Spanish director will make it.