If not for the candles and statue of the Virgin Mary, the slick and menacing room into which José Gutierrez (Roberto Urbina) is thrust—blindfolded and bloody, a rope (possibly a bootlace) gagging his mouth—could have been leased out to the young man’s kidnappers by Jigsaw. (Even the view-askew shots of poor José on the floor—the type of shorthand that means to convey his disorientated state by disorienting the audience—are cribbed from Saw.) As for the skeleton of this most allusive film, it’s a sturdy beast whose sense of urgency recalls 24 and whose reliance on flashback feels indebted to Lost: The story of José‘s kidnapping and his parents’ efforts to save him without involving police is lined with arcs that cast far-reaching shadows on each other, and as such the film evokes the stickiness of a tangled web.
This is a well-made film, even admirable given that it avoids the histrionics of the vile Secuestro Express and the pretense and remove of Send a Bullet, but writer-director Antonio Negret only alludes to the seriousness of his volatile social setting. Through José‘s relationship to Luiza (America Ferrera), the film’s strongest angle, Negret grapples with the baggage of people straying from their native cultures (his kidnapping may be seen as a repercussion of sorts), but the story of a former C.I.A. man’s search for José is a distraction, beginning as empty spiel on the different government organizations butting heads within Colombia post-9/11 and devolving into pap when its revealed why the agent is so gung-ho about saving José, though it mostly functions as an advisory of the suckitude of being stuck in traffic. This is to say nothing of the guerrillas who also attempt to rescue José, an angle that allows for overhead shots of Colombia’s lush forestland but casts light on nothing else, or the story of José‘s kidnappers and what led them to their crime, which doesn’t grapple hard enough with their desperation or delve deep enough into lower-class malaise.
Negret attempts to balance the graceful with the heavy-handed, so it’s not uncommon for a sensitive evocation of familial dynamics (like José‘s father acknowledging his child’s photography, or his mother jokingly admonishing him for drinking beer before taking a sip herself from his bottle, then—after he’s been kidnapped—glancing sadly at a pair of jeans he left behind, no doubt contemplating the beers they may never share again) to follow an intense car chase through winding streets. But the scales, more often than not, tip toward the fatuous, as in the repeated appearances by Mary and her son Jesus, and a naughty angel sitting atop a tomb that doesn’t harbor a dead boy, only an arsenal of weapons. This succinct but nonetheless easy expression of how the political, familial, and religious cross paths in Colombia exemplifies how Towards Darkness only scratches the surface of the things.