“Rojo” (2018): over-rated

I have not written what follows in the hopes of steering unsuspecting people away from watching this movie. I don’t think it’s dangerous or really bad. Rather, it bemused me. And then looking around online for reviews of it puzzled me some more. I can’t find anyone who didn’t rate it. Even Mark Kermode was in line, and he often sniffs out inadequacy and spots awkward quality. It reminded me of the UK’s Supreme Court in one of the Brexit cases: there was a unanimity amongst the judges and its main effect was to erode confidence in their opinion. I lightly wonder if this is the arts equivalent: maybe an omerta of wokeness. Anyway, this is written in case someone who didn’t like the film does a search in the hopes of finding someone else out there who didn’t respond well to Rojo.

Here’s a spoiler alert: I will thread the piece with my best attempts at reconstructing snatches of Rojo‘s action. I may have misremembered them. Here’s a further competence alert: I went to see the movie because it was called a tense, hypnotic, twisty thriller with a noir-ish take on a dysfunctional 1975 Argentina. Since I saw the film, a couple of days ago, I have read a few Wikipedia items on the period. I know rather little about Argentinian culture, though I have seen and enjoyed a good handful of recent arthouse movies from the country.

Here’s a calibration. A couple of days before Rojo, I saw and much admired Joker. It’s a noir satire and thriller set against the backdrop of a dysfunctional state, circa 1975. You go in knowing what the ending has to be but it is a properly twisty ride. It is often beautiful. (As Mark Kermode says, it makes you want to be a dancer.) The miracle of the enterprise is that one has no idea whether it is left- or right-leaning, or neither. It is certainly not populist, but it isn’t snobbish either. And it proves that you don’t have to like characters to be involved and interested in them.

Rojo‘s personnel left me uninvolved and not very interested. The film opens with a deadpan shot of a succession of people, respectable enough, emerging at short intervals from a respectable suburban house. They are each carrying a household item. I couldn’t see why the house’s occupants would leave in this way, but hell, it’s a movie. Sit tight.

We are soon in a respectable small-town or suburban restaurant. Two respectable-looking men have a bit of an uncomfortable moment over restaurant etiquette over which the man who has the better of the argument gracefully gives in and lets the other have his way. We discover this kindly soul is a lawyer. He stands to one side and eyeballs the other man (who is seated in what was the lawyer’s chair) and he lambasts him as a pathetic and worthless, badly brought-up, no-hoper. The restaurant falls silent during this tirade, as well it might. It is, after all, very rude and plain weird coming from a local good egg. There’s a full-on argey-bargey The no-hoper is evicted. Long story short, one way or another the no-hoper shoots himself in the head and lies wounded in the back of the lawyer’s car.

The lawyer at first drives to a local hospital where he finds there are no facilities for such a casualty. He is apparently going to drive him to a place where there’s a surgeon and proceeds to do that until he suddenly heads off into the desert, drives on a well-used track, stops, and drags the wounded man a short distance, dumps him, and then returns to his normal life. A 2007 Jack Reacher novels tells me that such a large victim would soon attract a spectacular and tell-tale display of carrion birds.

There are various long scenes involving a school dance troupe which is rehearsing something about the European colonialists and their arrival amongst the indigenous. There is a troupe of American cowboys which has difficulty getting past some state bureaucracy to take part in a local rodeo where, in their absense, citizens rip into cattle carcases for lunch. And there is a general background of political incompetence and perhaps worse.

At some point, a friend of the lawyer inveigles him into taking part in a property fraud. It is no more clear why he would become a scammer than it was obvious why he would suddenly be viciously assertive in a crowded restaurant or dump a wounded man in the boondocks.

Along the way, at the invitation of one of the lawyer’s friends, a reality-TV detective bowls up to try to find the friend’s missing son, who’s gone a bit hippy and disappeared. It isn’t clear whether the detective is on the trail of the lawyer, and for what wrong-doing, but they do meet and have mildly tense chats. Towards the end of the movie, the two men seem to share a bit of a breakdown or epiphany, and the movie briefly sparks into life. Later, the lawyer sort of breaks down in front of his wife who responds with erotic comfort. (She has throughout been allowed to be a warm type, against her husband’s nullity.) Duly pleasured or comforted, the lawyer starts wearing a wig, which is a good thing because his hair has been odd throughout.

Different bits of the film may have been intended to be satire, surrealism, magic realism, misdirects, or allegory. It depicts events a year preceding the notorious military coup and the Dirty War, with its 30,000 Disappeared. Maybe Rojo is a premonition. Maybe this is an essay in the banality of industrialised cruelty. But wouldn’t such a thing require entry-level plausibility?

Online, there are accounts of how the film is drenched in moments of corruption. I saw the lawyer’s scam, which was a straightforward act of criminality, but that’s all. We are supposed also to see the abuse of their position by privileged people: but these were small-town types and I didn’t see any abuse except by the lawyer in the restaurant, and there was no class dynamic in that.

This film may have meant a lot to Argentinian audiences for all sorts of reasons. Beyond disobliging ideas, I can’t explain the film’s universal high scores in the Anglosphere. It simply didn’t work for me on any level. I didn’t hate it or disapprove of it. It wasn’t so much boring as tedious.

Oh. Sometime deep in the film, we learn that the suburban house was being looted by people from the area’s shanty-town. They were positively genteel about it. Each shuts the door behind him- or herself, if I recall.

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Publication date

26 October 2019