The general and varied excellence of recent Chilean cinema — Patricio Guzmán! Alejandro Jodorowsky! Raúl Ruiz! Just for starters! — can and should be a conversation for another day. Today let’s talk in particular about filmmaker Alejandro Fernández Almendras, whose third feature To Kill a Man won this year’s Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize and is the writer-director’s first film to get much-deserved U.S. distribution.
A sort of anti-thriller, and a bracingly unpretentious crime-and-punishment character study, To Kill a Man tells the loosely true story of one conscientious family man (Daniel Candia) who finds his family terrorized by a neighborhood thug (Daniel Antivilo), then desperately seeks redress. That description puts it coyly, but as the filmmaker himself has pointed out in interviews, his title gives the movie away: We know what’ll happen. The question is what it takes.
Almendras insightfully subverts the familiar film trope of taking justice into one’s own hands. “For me any act of violence transcends far beyond the direct reasons that [seem to] justify it,” he told Filmmaker magazine. “And this is why I decided to make this film in two halves; the first one very clear and almost simplistic, very classical in its treatment of violence, and the other one a work of mystery and disconcerting uneasiness.” Here, the movie’s axis is that violent act — our anticipation of which becomes also a binding agreement to reflect, intimately, on its implications.
Like the American indie film Blue Ruin, another 2014 standout, To Kill a Man commands our attention by turning the very idea of the vigilante movie inside out. As morally serious as it is aesthetically alive, Almendras’ film isn’t always an easy thing to watch, but it is the result of real vision.