Escobar: Paradise Lost has a setup that’s ripe for a grandly loony and lurid tragicomedy. The film’s hapless hero, Nick (Josh Hutcherson), is an insanely naïve Canadian hoping to run a shoestring surf business on beaches near Medellín, Colombia with his brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet). One day, Nick strikes up a flirty conversation with a gorgeous young woman, Maria (Claudia Traisac), and the two soon become serious enough for Nick to be invited over to a mansion the size of a college campus for Maria’s uncle’s birthday party. That uncle is none other than Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro), the most notorious and powerful drug kingpin of all time, and soon Nick finds himself dodging bullets while on the run from Escobar’s shadowy cartel. Paradise Lost, then, offers the ultimate in inexplicable high-concept mash-ups: It’s Meet the Parents crossed with Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
The film’s subtitle, though, should tip audiences off to writer-director Andrea Di Stefano’s intentions, as this premise is meant to be taken deadly seriously as a parable of innocence corrupted. Paradise Lost is predictably and disastrously told from Nick’s point of view, which is to say that a fascinating socio-political story of global criminal conspiracy plays out on the fringes of a generic fable of a callow youth coming to understand, weirdly belatedly, that he might not be able to fraternize with ruthless killers without drawing some of the heat down on Maria and himself. For this scenario to play, we’d have to be drawn into Nick’s passion for Maria and to be allowed, perhaps, to intuit the understandable temptation that Escobar’s power and unfathomable wealth might wield over a young, essentially homeless backpacker. But this sort of empathy is never allowed to blossom, as Nick remains a blank pawn in his own narrative.
Di Stefano never establishes a seductive sense of pace, favoring instead a series of inept elisions that routinely throws the audience out of the story. Nick and Maria meet and are serious and moony about one another literally one minute’s worth of running time later, their courtship has been so pointedly omitted that one wonders if footage is missing. More importantly, this choppiness compromises the subversive collusion that we should feel with Escobar. We aren’t allowed to like him despite ourselves: One moment, Escobar’s an ambiguous father figure, the next he’s a psychopath. The film’s missing most of a first and second act.
There’s a major ace up the picture’s sleeve. Hutcherson is hopelessly bland, his eyes passive and blank (Corbet, with his implicative, nearly subterranean sense of humor, might’ve made this deer-in-headlights role work), but del Toro gives a commanding freak-show performance that brings the film to sporadic life. Di Stefano’s script has an admittedly terrific touch: With one exception, it never allows Escobar to say anything directly about his business, and this subtlety encourages one’s empathy with his family, who wants to believe the best despite the evidence in front of them, while imbuing del Toro’s work with a becoming element of suggestive majesty.
It’s a showy performance, a great actor’s parade of indulgences that occasionally sets the deranged camp tone that should have been the narrative’s starting point. Del Toro wears his considerable physicality deliberately heavily, as he did in Savages, playing Escobar as a myth rather than as a person, likening him to a big misleadingly passive bear with eyes that casually, unpredictably, betray his real viciousness. (A good comic scene, with Escobar questioning Nick about his devotion to Maria while matter-of-factly taking notes on a hit, particularly exploits the actor’s remarkable expressiveness.) Del Toro heartily confirms the suspicion that his casting as Escobar is a promising no-brainer, but this film can’t recover from its tone-deaf decision to render the titular character an inciting incident in what’s basically yet another white-tourist-meets-crazy-natives cautionary thriller.