To Kill a Man’s MacGuffin is a diabetic’s travel kit, specifically the one used by Jorge (Daniel Candia), a meek caretaker at a forest preserve who’s frequently seen injecting insulin into his belly fat. Working a tranquil job that keeps him in utter solitude, Jorge isn’t one for socialization or confrontation, and when he walks by the ruffians who’ve descended on his otherwise quiet neighborhood, he keeps his head down instead of barking back at their taunting insults. Before long, gang leader Kalule (Daniel Antivilo) mugs Jorge and steals his kit, prompting Jorge’s teenage son, Jorgito (Ariel Mateluna), to do what Dad won’t, angrily trying to retrieve the medicine and getting himself shot—and nearly killed—by Kalule in the process.
The film then jarringly, yet efficiently, jumps ahead two years, skipping past the span of a convicted Kalule’s prison term to show the crime’s enduring ripple effects. More timid than ever, Jorge has seen his marriage to wife Marta (Alejandra Yañez) crumble, and upon his release, Kalule terrorizes the family with hyper-intensified vigor. The narrative becomes a chronicling of Jorge’s desperate retaliation, and what began as a pursuit of his stolen medicine becomes a chase for both his loved ones’ security and the fortification of his masculinity.
This Chilean revenge flick is uniformly economical, from writer-director Alejandro Fernández Almendras’s sparing script and Candia’s subtle performance to Inti Briones’s oft-static photography and Pablo Vergara’s brooding, woodwind-y score. The overall restraint is highly effective in escalating the dread, even turning Jorge’s workaday troubles, like a chainsaw that won’t start, into moments of chilling uncertainty. The film’s aesthetic, meanwhile, works to isolate Jorge and mirror his arc from the very first scene, which sees him walking alone amid a sloping forest that’s backlit by a setting sun. Indeed, Almendras is aiming to convey the sense of a slipping-down life, filling his frames with diagonal lines and diffused light that seems on the verge of dying out. Staircases and jutting rooftops repeatedly slice through interior and exterior shots, and the amber, nighttime glow of street lamps is a prominent light source, which is to say that, often, much of the screen is nearly black.
And yet, To Kill a Man is also too restrained for its own good. As quietly, meticulously handsome as the film is (the use of lens flares alone is a decisive color-enhancing, compositional component), there’s precious little juicy subtext to its design, and in the end, it’s not much more than a tragic vigilante tale for the art house. Jorge is a pitiable character, and there’s a laudable grace to the unspoken ways in which we process his from-all-angles emasculation (in addition to Kalule’s abuse, which involves vandalizing Jorge’s home and all but raping his teenage daughter, there’s the judgmental dismay of Marta, who blames her family’s plight on her ex-husband’s initial lack of resolve). But the roadblocks Jorge and Marta hit in their lawful pursuit of justice, before Jorge begins wrestling with the morally devastating notion of the title, is run-of-the-mill, movie-conflict bureaucracy. And Almendras may excel at conveying the indignity of Jorge’s raw, screwed-by-the-system deal, his bruised ego as crippling as his untreated diabetes, but the film is still curiously lacking in vitality. It’s as if the reins are being tugged to the point of a deprivation of interest, and while it’s welcome that the film waits until the end to share that it’s based on a true story, there’s no shaking the sense that said story could have been much more compellingly told.