The influence of David Fincher’s Se7en on Hollywood has been profound; from 8mm to Minority Report. Now you will find that influence in a starkly serious detective story from Spain called Marshland (La isla minima), which will have its U.S. theatrical premiere in South Florida this Friday, after first premiering in Miami at this year’s edition of Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival.
Previously, the film won ten Goyas (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) including one for lead actor Javier Gutiérrez. The film is set in 1980, in a small town along the Guadalquivir River in southern Spain that's still shaking off Franco’s dictatorial rule. Two detectives from Madrid arrive to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters. The investigators aren’t exactly the best of chums. Juan (Gutiérrez) is older and more experienced. In his free time he drinks and prowls for loose women. Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) is the young idealist. He’s the sober family man. Juan also harbors a dark history with pro-Franco forces that unnerves Pedro, creating an ever-present tension of distrust between the men.
The film is beautifully shot, with a well-controlled yellow/brown patina and washed out blues. It gives Marshland a bit of a vintage look and looks gorgeous on the big screen. The opening credits, featuring scanning aerial shots of the variety of the labyrinthine swamp lands that define the setting, offers a mesmerizing introduction to the terrain our heroes will have navigate in their search for clues. The typography looks like the cross-section of a brain. It also sets up the strange but plausible logic of an intense car chase later in the film.
On a more intimate level, the set design never belies its mood. The discovery of a crime scene featuring bodies fusing to the wet marshland looks like a startling work of art. There’s also a scene in the ruins of a barn that looks like a set from True Detective. The rain-soaked climax and even the film’s broodily atmospheric score by Julio de la Rosa (Juan of the Dead) recalls The Killing.
The film has all the right influences, but what it has in atmosphere and style, it lacks in logic. Too many convenient plot twists put the deus ex machina into overdrive. Two detectives are brought in to investigate a missing persons case of two teenage sisters known in town as dubious characters with parents living in poverty feels far-fetched. But, worst of all, too many clues seem to drop into the detectives’ laps, from leads provided by a psychic to hints handed over to the detectives by the girls' mother.
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The performances are strong, and Marshland never feels like a soap opera. Gutiérrez and Arévalo have a smoldering tension that only subsides when they turn their focus to the case. It builds toward a climactic chase scene that will remind some of the violent confrontation that ended Season 1 of True Detective.
Marshland is a decent film if you can set aside an urge to grumble “wait a minute” at the development of plot twists and go with it for the sake of atmosphere. But it should have been a better-planned detective story.
Marshland has its U.S. theatrical premiere in South Florida on August 21. Actor Javier Gutiérrez will be present for a red-carpet premiere and will host a Q&A after two screenings, one at 7 p.m. and another at 7:10 p.m. at Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com). On August 22, Gutiérrez will also appear at O Cinema Miami Shores (o-cinema.org), at 2 p.m., and then at 5 p.m. at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). The film is also screening at AMC Aventura.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.