A magnificently deranged study of overboard pop-culture fandom and authoritarian rule’s destructive effect on its citizenry, Tony Manero vigorously rubs one’s face in the horrors of life under Augusto Pinochet. The center of director Pablo Larraín’s social-realist nightmare is Raúl (Alfredo Castro), a corpse-gaunt 52-year-old obsessed with Saturday Night Fever, a film he constantly attends and plans to stage at a dingy local Santiago cantina above which he lives with his needy girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera), her sensual daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus), and her daughter’s boyfriend Goya (Hector Morales). Raúl’s stoic face reveals little other than pitiless disinterest in the world and its inhabitants save for John Travolta’s titular disco dancer, whom at story’s outset Raúl hopes to impersonate on a TV celebrity contest, only to discover that the week’s show is, in fact, featuring Chuck Norris lookalikes. Thus, he goes home to sit around his grimy apartment in his underwear, smoking cigarettes, until he sees a woman on the street getting mugged, dresses and helps her return home, where after watching a bit of television, he mechanically bludgeons her to death. And then feeds her cat, eats some dinner, and pawns her TV.
Such grim business proves only an introductory glancing blow from Tony Manero, which quickly devolves into such unpleasant depravity that it soon becomes bleakly amusing. While the specific pull of Saturday Night Fever on Raúl remains consistently ambiguous (is it the music and flamboyance? The notion of a nobody transforming himself into a somebody through artistic expression?), his romantic, American-made cinematic fantasy is an attempted retreat from Chilean reality, just as that dream’s mutation is symptomatic of a dictatorship’s insidious corrosiveness. Pinochet’s Chile is a grungy pisspot whose decaying infrastructure matches its decomposing morality, typified by Raúl’s surrogate family issues, which involve him lasciviously coveting Pauli and—spoilers herein—Cony eventually exacting revenge against child by callously throwing her and Goya to the wolves. Societal, familial and individual psychological breakdowns are the norm, as are assassinations of political dissenters by the fascistic secret police, and consequently Raúl’s murder of the cat lady, as well as subsequent others—acts motivated not by passion but by expedience—arouse nothing in his heart, as well as no attention from those around him, his cold-blooded conduct merely a ho-hum everyday extension of the government’s brutally oppressive, whatever-it-takes conduct.
Tyranny’s corruption of traditional ethical and economic standards are reflected in Raúl’s crimes, which are driven by unemotional financial concerns, with each slaying propelling him that much closer to his goals: purchasing blocks of glass for a strobe light-illuminated dance floor, and appearing on live TV. Larraín’s handheld camera affixes itself to Raúl, tracking him in close-ups (often, like the Dardennes, from behind his head) that highlight his vicious blankness and, at those moments in which the screen deliberately loses focus, express his periodic desires to withdraw into his Manero persona. Maintaining his protagonist’s perspective with tenacious resolve, Larraín’s up-close-and-personal direction (aided by innumerable scraggly jump cuts) offers a resolutely sinister portrait of stark sadism, as well as allows his trenchant but understated political critique to emerge from the periphery. The owner of the bar where Raúl’s troupe rehearses and performs slams Goya as a “communist,” and later asserts, “Things are finally working in this country.” Totalitarianism is the fetid swamp in which Raúl festers, with tangential snippets of current-events chitchat (of Pinochet’s blue eyes, of Chile’s hostility with Argentina) and Raúl’s sporadic run-ins with homicidal law enforcement delivering subtle, trenchant context for his increasingly unhinged behavior.
And unhinged it is, depicted by Larraín with cruel, uncompromising grittiness that’s infused with gallows humor. Corny gagging after failing to arouse the literally and figuratively impotent Raúl’s cock, Raúl’s mimicry of Travolta’s moves and dialogue, and his cruel drunken tryst with Pauli (which, as befitting everyone’s callous remoteness, amounts to only masturbation) are all presented with such sustained creepiness that much of the action takes on a morbidly funny edge. Larraín’s film exhibits a sickening rigorousness, whether its focus is on Raúl’s celluloid mania—at one point, he bashes in a projectionist’s skull for showing Grease instead of Saturday Night Fever, then returns home to fanatically examine film strips—or the man’s twisted psychosexual rapport with equally delusional, amoral hangers-on Corny and Pauli. This intensity is ultimately exemplified by Castro’s relentlessly severe performance, which, like the film itself, exudes mundane brutality. At heart a robotically numb lunatic operating according to his surroundings’ warped mores, Castro’s Raúl is feverishly, fascinatingly grotesque, his madness captured most strikingly during his climactic television dance routine—in which a cutaway to him staring blankly at the camera conveys the depths of his (and his dream’s) emptiness—and, in the end, most horrifyingly when he sabotages Goya’s own shot at TV stardom by matter-of-factly shitting on (and then gratuitously smearing said shit into) the young man’s own Tony Manero suit.