The opening image of director Pablo Larraín’s The Club features a yet-unnamed man playing with a dog on a desolate, foggy beach, where the crashing waves and pooch’s tired huffs are the only audible sounds. The animal runs in a circle that’s been clearly demarcated in the sand by its repeated path, chasing a dangling towel that the man spins over its head from a long stick. After several laps, all captured in a static, extreme long shot, it becomes apparent that Larraín intends this seemingly innocuous image to recall a Wiccan circle, where the performance of a ritual protects the participant from outside, presumably evil, forces.
Amorphous spaces and shapes comprise every ounce of meaning within this would-be horror film that reroutes actual interest in explicit incarnations of evil into a gaggle of boozy clergymen and their caretaker nun, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), who’ve been mysteriously relocated to “a retreat for priests” in the small beachside town of La Boca in Chile, outside the much larger Santiago. Larraín introduces faces rather than personalities, snapshotting character behavior with a montage that suggests a family on a jaunty getaway. The images reveal themselves as foreboding inverses of Chilean painter Carolina Landea’s “Moments” collection from 1960, in which the vibrant colors of summer afternoons on beaches or in gardens have been transformed into darkened skies, damp sand, and chilly, monochromatic tableaux.
Larraín coyly withholds narrative information for much of the film’s first third, sprinkling pieces of action like a trail of breadcrumbs, as when a group of men is seen watching a dog race through binoculars from afar. In fact, the film hasn’t yet divulged that these men are exiled priests. In retrospect, the scene serves as an allusion to Salò, where the comforts of technologically mediated distance allow its sadistic aristocrats to witness murder and torture as if they’d just dropped a coin into the nearby nickelodeon.
Such elements have been intellectualized by Larraín’s satirical aesthetics so that barriers, both physical and symbolic, strikingly dictate action. One afternoon, Sandokan (Roberto Farías) stands outside the priests’ compound, shouting invectives about past abuse as a child by Father Matias (José Soza). After being handed a gun to fire a warning shot, Matias steps outside and promptly shoots himself in the head. Before the bloodshed, the scene works as absurdist theater, since it’s unclear who all of these men are, much less what their relationships to one another may be, with the perched, ocean-front home clearly serving as an allegorical space for their protection. Larraín, too, cuts early sequences with vigorous attention to spatial placement, so that a chat in the foreground of one scene proceeds deeper into the frame, with the characters identically arranged, in the next shot.
But once Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) arrives at La Boca as the Vatican’s dispatched investigator and new live-in member, The Club ditches its substantial craftsmanship and strange sense of humor for progressively ugly developments that shift Larraín’s thematic interests toward constructing a didactic tongue-lashing against the Catholic Church disguised as speculative fiction. These threads start to materialize as Garcia speaks with each priest, attempting to comprehend the prior misdeeds that led to their exile from the church. Larraín’s directorial poker face retains an air of playful mystery that raises numerous questions, most notably: Are these interactions meant as interrogations or confessions? Subsequently, Garcia starts to treat the coastal home like a halfway house; he dumps all of the booze during dinner one night and demands the men stop attending, or participating in, dog races. Mónica pleads her case, saying the men deserve “prayer and a little recreation,” but Garcia’s insistent on ensuring “no one else [dies] here.” The middle third drags, too, because of Larraín’s sudden uptick in exposition.
The Club’s final third returns to explore further the depths of Sandokan’s trauma, and two scenes grind the film to a halt. One involves a drunk and despondent Sandokan reminiscing about making a “priest stew” as revenge for all he’s been through, which inexplicably leads to him being fisted by an unnamed, fully nude woman. His hatred of priests leads to both rampant homophobia and an obsession with anal sex—a dissonance Larraín refrains from explicating. The scene erases the film’s early intrigue in favor of set-piece shocks, culminating in a denouement that crosscuts between two men being savagely beaten by a differing gang of assailants. That The Club ends with a solemn hymn is either a perversely ironic gesture or a straight-faced plea for the film’s wayward significance, but either reading dissatisfies, because in Larraín’s imagined, hellish universe, opting for ritual relegates the human spirit to one of two reductive options: repentance or re-penetration.