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To Kill a Man

Original title: Matar a un hombre

D: Alejandro Fernández Almendras / 82m

Cast: Daniel Candia, Alejandra Yañez, Daniel Antivilo, Ariel Mateluna, Jennifer Salas, Don Willie, Paula Leoncini

Jorge (Candia) is a quiet family man who works as a caretaker at a forest research site. One night he’s mugged near to his home by a man called Kulale (Antivilo) and some of his gang; they steal his money and his insulin kit. He tells his wife, Marta (Yañez) and Jorgito (Mateluna). Jorgito knows who Kulale is and tells his father that he can get his insulin kit back for 5,000 pesos. Jorge demurs but later that night he realises his son has gone out. He goes to look for him and hears a gunshot from the nearby projects. He finds Jorgito has been shot. As he tends to him, Kulale appears and, weighing up the situation, shoots and wounds himself.

While Jorgito spends three months in hospital recovering, Kulale’s prosecution goes ahead. He contends Jorge and his son attacked and shot him first and he was defending himself when he shot Jorgito, but the court rules against him. To the family’s shock, however, his sentence is restricted to eighteen months due to a technicality. Following the trial, cracks begin to appear in Jorge and Marta’s marriage, and she blames him for Jorgito’s being shot.

Two years pass. Jorge and Marta are now divorced, though he visits his family often. One day at work he receives a call from Kulale who tells him he’s not finished with Jorge and his family and that they have a debt to settle. This proves to be the beginning of a campaign of harassment carried out by Kulale and his gang, which includes abusive phone calls, trapping Jorgito in the back of his truck, throwing rocks at the family home, and assaulting Jorge’s teenage daughter, Nicole (Salas). Each time, Jorge and his family report the incidents but the police and the prosecutor’s office seem unconcerned or unwilling to proceed without any witnesses.

Realising that the chances of anything being done to stop Kulale’s harassment and intimidation of his family are minimal, Jorge decides to take matters into his own hands. One night he lures Kulale out of his home and forces him at gunpoint into the back of Jorgito’s truck. It’s at this point that Jorge must decide if killing Kulale is the right course of action, and if it is, if he can go through with it.

To Kill a Man - scene

A sparse, quietly powerful movie, To Kill a Man is an intense, thought-provoking look at the way in which intimidation and bullying can lead even the most reserved of people to take the law into their own hands, and the subsequent ways in which their lives can be affected, both subtly and obviously. It’s a stark, poetic movie, one that carries a tremendous emotional wallop, and which portrays its central character as a simple man trying to lead a simple life, and struggling when that simplicity of existence is threatened.

The emotional turmoil suffered by Jorge and his family is soberly portrayed, and without recourse to melodrama. Their pain and anger is clearly felt and expressed both through their dealings with authority, and through the deteriorating relationship between Jorge and Marta. Even after they’ve divorced there’s a lingering sense of resentment and disapproval that undermines their ability to communicate with each other. Marta wants Jorge to be more assertive, but it’s not really in his nature; he’s a solitary man, even within his own family. Faced with the problem of Kalule and his aggressive behaviour, Jorge reacts as best he can but it’s not enough for Marta or Jorgito. He deflects their anger at the situation and appears weak in the process.

But all this turmoil is having an effect, and thanks to the combination of Almendras’ impressive script and Candia’s riveting portrayal, Jorge’s eventual decision to “deal” with the problem of Kalule displays an inner strength that abrogates any suggestion that he’s too reserved to cope with it all. Bolstered by an encounter on forest land with a man who pulls a knife on him, Jorge takes confidence from his dealing with that situation and commits to a course of action that tests both his sense of morality and his sense of himself as a man. For the viewer it’s a moment where the feeling of holding one’s breath gives way to a sense of relief at Jorge making such an important, difficult decision.

Candia gives a remarkable performance, Jorge’s withdrawn, taciturn nature given full articulation via the actor’s subtly expressive features. It’s a performance that proves unexpectedly gripping, and while the rest of the cast provide more than adequate support, Candia is the emphatic heart and soul of the movie. Even when he’s alone in a scene there’s little doubt as to how he’s feeling, or what he’s thinking. It’s gripping to watch, and a testament to Almendras’s decision to cast him.

As well as an examination of the morality of taking the law into your own hands, the movie also looks at the effects a shocking event can have the family involved, as well as its legacy. Even when they fight back against Kulale by going to the police there’s no real sense of a family united in their efforts, and Almendras rarely shows all four members spending time together. It’s beyond the movie’s scope but it would be interesting to see their reaction to Jorge’s abduction of Kulale and what happens as a consequence. The Chilean legal system comes in for some considerable criticism (though at present it is undergoing a radical change), and some aspects might seem a little far-fetched – the prosecutor’s home address being given out upon request, for example – but it’s all fuel for the predicament Jorge finds himself trying to cope with.

To Kill a Man - scene2

Visually, the movie is a dour experience in keeping with the material, but there are glimpses of the natural beauty in the forest area where Jorge works, plus some stunning coastal scenery. Almendras keeps things straightforward and direct, dispensing with any frills or unnecessary camera flourishes, and maintaining a tight focus on the characters and placing them in various cramped locations to highlight their sense of being hemmed in at all turns. There’s also an ominous score courtesy of Pablo Vergara that accentuates the drama and cleverly pre-empts the emotional result of Kulale’s abduction.

Rating: 9/10 – a striking, intelligently constructed exploration of one man’s alienation from his family and his attempt at redressing the wrongs done to him, To Kill a Man is a modest drama that succeeds by virtue of a strong central performance and a compelling narrative; apparently based on “real events”, Almendras’s third feature is a triumph of low-budget, independent movie making.