It sounds like an intriguing premise. Sergio (Fele Martínez), an aspiring screenwriter/director, has written a script for a western, but it keeps getting rejected. He's told it feels ham-fisted and hollow. One would-be producer tells him it lacks a believable, lived-in quality. So Sergio leaves his cowboy-decorated apartment (Playmobil toys included) in the city to visit the desert of Chile in search of real-life inspiration. Brother, does he ever find it.
Repeatedly mistaken by the locals for someone named Diego, Sergio decides to take up the mysterious man's identity as part of his adventure. He soon learns why Diego split town, as not only friends come out of the woodwork but also a psychotic nemesis and a femme fatale.
That's the idea behind Sal (Salt), Chilean director Diego Rougier's "meta comedy" that's getting an exclusive Miami premiere at Coral Gables Art Cinema this weekend. What should have felt like a surreal revelation of living a fantasy-turned-nightmare, however, feels stale and dull.
Hence, the intriguing premise of Salt goes to pot. The film does not fail spectacularly but rather, languidly. It's a combination of issues. The editing could have been tighter, for instance. Scenes are not extended for tension as much as allowed to bleed dry of it. The acting is over-the-top; it never rises to the occasion, but seems overly sincere and phony, preventing the viewer from feeling invested in the characters' stories.
That's not the only strike against this film's players. Director Diego Rougier's character development is inconsistent, giving the film an unbelievable feel. He also squanders a chance to lampoon the man-child's predicament, as Sergio rises to his role as a gunman seeking vengeance, albeit clumsily. Though Salt is described as a black comedy, the humor wears thin with its sloppy storytelling.
In the end, even several shoot-out scenes seem to drone on endlessly. Rougier incorporates numerous shots of the desert, a setting that plays an important role in providing Sergio's inspiration. The landscape should have felt like a character in the film, but merely comes across as another prop. It would have served the film better to allow the camera to linger on the desert rather than its listless action sequences.
The idea of Salt could have been elevated to more interesting heights had a director with a more confident hand been at the helm. Quentin Tarantino or even David Lynch could have done wonders with this idea. From pace to camera angels, the entire film begs for more charisma that never appears. Poor Sergio goes through so many scenes of torture that viewers become numb to his pain. The shootouts could have been better tempered by a less-is-more ethos. The same indulgence cripples the dialogue. By the end, even the camera angels begin to seem cliched. It could have all been so much more intense. Instead, it's redundant and bland.
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I'm all for inventive takes on staid genre films like this (see the Australian film the Proposition to see how a neo-Western can be done well). But Rougier fails in his attempt to both re-invent the classic Western while indulging in its tropes. The film should feel tight and compact while offering surprises in tone and atmosphere. But like its main character's original script, Salt falls short on too many levels to entertain.
Salt premieres in Miami on Friday, October 18, at Coral Gables Art Cinema (visit gablescinema.com for details and tickets).
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.