At once familiar and enigmatic, The Dead Man and Being Happy feels like a connect-the-dots film with a few lines artfully blurred. The tale of elderly, regret-filled hitman Santos (José Sacristán) and Alejandra (Roxana Blanco), the wistful woman who suddenly enters his life, stitches a tapestry of stray moments and tender, fleeting connections recognizable to anyone who watches even a modest amount of international art cinema. The mixture of distancing formal devices through which director/co-writer Javier Rebollo filters them doesn't rejuvenate these narrative tropes so much as open up unexpected cracks and crevices within them. They remain all the tantalizing (and frustrating) for being unearthed with such elliptical casualness.
A sketch of Santos's waning existence comes into focus early on. He meets a sympathetic nurse in a public square, who slips him some morphine to relieve the pain caused by his three tumors. (A consummate womanizer, Santos asks to see her breasts as well.) After failing to complete a hit that he's already been compensated for, Santos somewhat aimlessly hits the road to escape the vengeance of the mysterious, bespectacled man who ordered the assassination. He stops at a gas station, where Alejandra slips into his backseat and tells him to drive. After some hesitation, he does.
Neither Santos nor Alejandra ever really questions the logic of their sudden road-trip camaraderie, which speaks to the film's appealing streak of understated playfulness. (Santos's botched hit strikes a similar note of uncanny slyness.) Though ostensibly outrunning Santos's unsatisfied employer, the two travel through rural Argentina with rambling informality, stopping at off-season hotels and a gas station overrun with stray dogs. They trade stories and reveal secrets: Alejandra about her ill-fated affair with her father's cousin; Santos about his illness and, while in the midst of his drug-induced hallucination, his experience as a hired killer. As perhaps to be expected, their journey becomes less about the outfoxing of Santos's perhaps imagined pursuer and more about the inescapability of one's past and (in his case) mortality.
Santos and Alejandra fit firmly within a long line of aging men, looking for redemption in their twilight years, and younger women who provide solace while also finding some in the old gentleman's craggy charm. Rebollo at least seems aware of the almost unavoidable sentimentality of this setup, and counteracts it with a near constant voiceover that narrates much of the action on screen. (The voice remains primarily a female one throughout, though a male voice intersperses with greater frequency.) These narrators give The Dead Man a crisp layer of self-reflexivity—anticipating lines of dialogue right before a character speaks them or archly providing background details that Santos and Alejandra don't volunteer to one another. When placed in concert with the screenplay's meandering set pieces and Rebollo's own penchant for laidback circular pans that luxuriate in various rural vistas and tourist-trap milieus, they tend to dry out the would-be soggier aspects of the film.
Despite some beguiling attempts at opening up Santos's fate to larger questions of subjectivity and fate, the film remains hemmed in by the art-house conventionality of its setup. Still, the opportunity to luxuriate in the presence of actors as effortlessly charismatic as Sacristán and Blanco isn't to be dismissed, particularly when their encounters come refracted through a directorial vision as gently intriguing as Rebollo's. The results may not be revelatory, but they provide enough aesthetic rigor and lived-in charm to make us look at its story with revivified eyes.