[Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series of articles examining the most potent, perplexing, and instructive scenes in a century of cinema.]
Arriving under the star of Bruno Dumont and Carlos Reygadas (a co-producer), Amat Escalante’s Los bastardos (2008) is a creepy-crawly art-film bad time, but we don’t really know how bad until the end. Before that, the movie is a bolero of uneasiness and dread, and we’re never sure if the marriage between menace and Dumont-style comatosity will ever be consummated. From the very first, super-long shot down the dry bed of the Los Angeles River to the last close-up in a massive strawberry field, Escalante’s film is a work of gripping concision and malevolent patience. The two protagonists, Jesus and Fausto (non-pros Jesus Moises Rodriguez and Ruben Sosa), are undocumented Mexican laborers looking for work across the street from an LA Home Depot; Escalante dawdles with the curbside cohort, before and while they finally get a gig digging a luxury house foundation by hand.
Then we switch gears. Though both migrants seem to be upstanding and wary of trouble, something turns: at night the two men climb through a window and into a suburban house occupied by a miserable white mother (Nina Zavarin), who has replied to her teenage son’s gruff departure by knocking herself out with a hit of crack. No one talks much, but immediately the air is filled with suspended judgments—the woman feeds the men microwave dinners, and then they all swim in the backyard pool (at gunpoint), then they share some more crack. She is convinced her ex-husband sent them; they don’t understand English and couldn’t much care. If she seems to be inviting trouble of a sexual kind, they are disinclined, although cunnilingus does initiate a single rolling tear.
There’s a principle hidden here that may be vital to the future of film—that is the idea that digital imagery, which is so ubiquitous that even new romantic comedies routinely have CGI credit listings, is most effective, or even only effective, when you don’t notice it for what it is.
Escalante has also been unjustly dished for being too derivatively Reygadas-esque (as if that’s a bad thing), and (for those who don’t know from Reygadas’s remarkable Japon, Battle in Heaven, and Silent Light) being less revealing about Mexican day laborers than being simply enigmatic and elusive. Which are, of course, the same thing. But nothing in Reygadas could have prepared us for where Escalante was headed: to a desolate moment when all of the characters’ options seem to have been expended, and an empty impulsive decision—spoiler!—that defines finally what the movie has really been about all this time.
It’s Zavarin’s wasted middle-aged Mom, hanging on so desperately to a middle-class existence and identity despite the hunger for toxic escape and her implicit run of rotten luck, that sits at the center of the film’s mysteries. And in an unpredictable split-second of catastrophe, when the sawed-off shotgun the men carry finally goes off, she’s gone, and the shocking abruptness of the violence makes us mourn her all the more.
Of course this scene, this moment, was managed with digital sleight-of-hand, a dummy, and lots of fake blood. But it’s not a digital effect that cues you to its very digital-ness, as a Transformers robot does. It is in fact an exemplary use of the technology. It’s chilling because you can’t see the seams, and for all intents and purposes it looks as though they killed a woman on film. It happens so quickly you don’t worry about special effects in any case. All you know is instant grief.
There’s a principle hidden here that may be vital to the future of film—that is the idea that digital imagery, which is so ubiquitous that even new romantic comedies routinely have CGI credit listings, is most effective, or even only effective, when you don’t notice it for what it is. Gary Sinise’s missing legs in Forrest Gump, Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours, the head crushed by the fire extinguisher in Irreversible— these are instances wherein the magic of digitals can take our breath away. Giant monsters, alien robots, flying superheroes—for so many filmgoers lucky enough to be rid of adolescence, these are just huge, loud, boring spectacles. Digitals don’t help to tell the story in most blockbusters, they are the story. The future of the effect might lie with its ability to fool the eye, not numb it.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Moving Image Source and Alt Screen; his books include Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat, both from St. Martin’s Press.