Director Pablo Larraín is drawn to the grimier aspects of human behavior as a means of grappling with political turmoil and violence, and as in Tony Manero, those larger evils in Post Mortem are internalized and channeled by a robotically detached character played by Alfredo Castro. Mario (Castro) is a mortician in 1973 Chile who, on the day of Pinochet's military coup against socialist president Salvador Allende, finally decides to act on his long-suppressed feelings for across-the-street neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a cabaret dancer fired from her gig at the local theater for being anorexic. With long blond-white locks framing his chillingly gaunt, pasty face, Mario is a hollow specter roaming an urban milieu wracked by upheaval, and his blank, impassive eyes and mechanical comportment eerily reflect the murderous callousness of the country's power-seizing armed forces. Larraín's film opens with the undercarriage image of a tank loudly rolling down a street littered with the debris of absent protestors, and a similar brand of machinery noise assumes a persistent presence throughout the ensuing saga, with the sound of refrigerator humming or medical contraption buzzing suggesting the dangerous static that seems to plague Mario's unstable mind.
Owen and Nancy's mismatched relationship soon reflects, and is enveloped by—quite literally, in an early attempt to drive through a communist youth rally march—the chaos that reigns around them. If this sounds familiar, it's because Post Mortem's modus operandi is by and large identical to Larraín's prior effort, except that here Chilean political realities initially manifest themselves not in overtly vicious ways, but via pitiful attempts at attaining amour. Those stabs at romantic fulfillment are naturally stymied by corrosive dysfunction. And despite a stunning sequence in which Mario, confronted with Nancy's sudden tears, also breaks into drooling waterworks (a bizarre attempt at empathy), there's a sameness and predictability to this volatile dynamic that dulls its effect, especially once Larraín resorts to providing a glimpse of Mario quietly jerking off in his bedroom. It's grunginess of a somewhat redundant nature, less informative than merely indulgent and far less hilariously over-the-top than in the director's last film. Moreover, such graphicness isn't nearly as telling or amusing as Mario's random rejections of social overtures, such as when he coldly rebuffs the advances of a colleague because "I don't sleep with women who sleep with other women. It's not fair."
Larraín employs ultra-widescreen cinematography for constricting close-ups and inhospitably alienating compositions that generate a nasty chill, the director keeping the army's brutality off screen to amplify a sense of oppressive malevolence. Especially in his Goodfellas-meets-Dardennes Brothers tracking shots from behind Mario's head, Larraín's studied aesthetics can be pointedly self-conscious. Still, his jet-black humor remains vigorous, the proceedings eliciting creeped-out chuckles from Mario's weirdly obsessive interactions with Nancy, as in a scene at a Chinese restaurant during which both prove totally clueless about the menu's selections. Military sympathy and loyalty leads to power and confidence for Mario, while a pro-Allende co-worker loses security and psychological equilibrium as the corpses pile up in the hospital's hallways. Castro's haunted visage remains Larraín's favorite subject, a meticulously controlled countenance that exhibits recognizable emotion only during an autopsy of Allende that finds Mario comically struggling to transcribe his superior's diagnosis on a newfangled electric typewriter and then, at the moment the president's death is ruled a suicide, flashing the faintest hint of a smile. Larraín's gaze hasn't altered much since Tony Manero, but it remains frosty and unnerving, capturing mushrooming derangement with a rigorousness that culminates with a prolonged, static final shot in which discarded pieces of furniture become weapons of personal/political rage, piling up and out toward the camera until they overwhelm the frame, negating any view of human life.