The politics of A Monster with a Thousand Heads, a thriller about a woman seeking retribution from members of a corrupt pharmaceutical industry, are consistently muddled by director Rodrigo Plá’s conspicuous formal choices, which place an accumulation of dread before an understanding of Sonia (Jana Raluy), a ticking time bomb of pent-up anger and frustration. Plá foregrounds his disinterest in narrative specificity, whether economic or cultural, by presenting Sonia purely through her emotive attributes rather than more pronounced identity markers. Accordingly, she’s introduced in a dimly lit opening scene as she attends to her sick husband, Memo (Daniel Cubillo), who writhes in pain during the middle of the night. As the film progresses, details accrue about his ongoing illness, which Sonia believes to be treatable with a medicine not offered by their health insurance providers.
Plá sets these events in motion through austere shot choices, like an opening, extended static take that treats Memo’s pain at a remove. Subsequent scenes, whether Sonia moves throughout a house in her underwear or frustratedly sits in the waiting room of an insurance office, likewise treat her at a distance and without ample dialogue, as if seeking to distill her personage into the malleable archetype of simply an Angry Woman. Though A Monster with a Thousand Heads is set in Mexico, there’s little about Sonia or her surroundings that indicate as much, primarily because the numerous interiors and one-dimensional presentation of characters’ emotional state strips nuance in favor of a hollowed universalism. The film could be set anywhere, it seems, and Sonia could be just about any woman.
If these sound like minimalist gestures, they play as flat evocations of Plá’s inflated arthouse sensibilities, where typical scenes of confrontations between characters unfold off screen or at a remove, denying any momentum the encounter could provide the narrative. The most egregious instance comes as Sonia tracks down a doctor inside of a parking garage; rather than shoot the exchange directly, Plá places the camera inside the car of a man waiting to park in the doctor’s space. Moreover, the car’s stereo drowns out the argument, which remains out of focus in the background. The formal choice is merely an empty stylistic flourish that denies a direct address of Sonia’s marginalization by the seemingly all-male pharmaceutical industry.
The film suggests by its title a health insurance industry run amuck with bad faith and unstoppable corruption, but the title also comes to invoke Sonia as a Medusa-like figure, whose gun-toting rage incidentally sets off a violent chain of events that also involves her teenage son, Dario (Sebastián Aguirre Boëda). The film’s fundamental ambivalence makes no sense of Sonia’s opting for violence, thereby reducing the proceedings to templates of tension that lack a coherent perspective on the crisis at hand.
Plá also demonstrates a rather cheap sense of humor. Inside a male locker room, after Sonia shoots a man in the leg, the scene stays with a scared, fully naked onlooker, who flees the scene out into the pool area, where he informs an instructor (whose class of young girls bewilderedly stare ahead) that there’s been a shooting. The moment does little more than sidestep the primary action for an awkward encounter of no relevance to the matter at hand. As these kinds of scenes start to become commonplace throughout A Monster with a Thousand Heads, one senses a seediness in Plá’s intentions that views Sonia’s case as a means for configuring offbeat tangents and conveying detail through contrived, roundabout means.