REVIEW: Feel-Bad Inhale Bashes Viewer, Protagonist on Nose Over Organ Tourism

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Americans find foreign places scary and believe dying and/or missing children to be the height of human tragedy. The above opinions are widely held in Iceland, a generalization I feel liberated to make after watching Inhale, a public service announcement packaged as a big, frowny movie that operates from a series of tiresome presumptions about both its subject and its audience. Director Baltasar Kormakur (A Little Trip to Heaven, Jar City) hails from Iceland, but was apparently weaned on the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director who loves to make American characters choke on their privilege, ideally while their children hang in the balance.

Positing miserabilist extremity as a new genre, a horror hybrid that offers a safe outlet for suitably disposed white people looking to work out their guilt and entitlement issues, Inhale follows a father trying to save his daughter's life by finding her a new pair of lungs on the Mexican black market. Paul Stanton (Dermot Mulroney) is a fancy prosecutor with a blankly adoring wife named Diane (Diane Kruger) and an 11-year-old daughter, Chloe (Mia Stallard), who is entering the last stage of progressive lung disease.

The choppy, atmospheric title sequence straps us in for an arty ride: Paul is packing anxiously while Diane hovers nearby; a pantload of money is waiting on the bed. A title pops up to inform us that in the United States the demand for healthy organs exceeds the supply by 10 to one. Alert capitalists will note that any market with those odds is begging for a correction, and I had a feeling it wasn't going to be pretty. Or legal. It would definitely, however, involve a lot of "this is a very serious and potentially violent situation" over-the-shoulder camerawork.

Kormakur (working from a script by Walter Doty and John Claflin) alternates between Paul's expedition to Juarez and the period, two months earlier, when the plan was hatched. In both instances Paul is already at the end of his rope, so Mulroney's performance as a grimly desperate dad has nowhere to go. But a neat (if bloody) path is cleared for Paul the white exploiter in need of an education, and he is frog-marched onto it almost as soon as he crosses the border. Having gleaned (with the help of the family's doctor, played by Rosanna Arquette) that one of his colleagues (Sam Shepard) was on a donor list 10 years ago, only to have been mysteriously removed without a record of a transplant, Paul and Diane begin doing a little recon. When it is revealed that this colleague got hooked up with an expensive adventure in organ tourism, Paul decides that retracing his steps might be the only way to save Chloe's life.

That's the extent of the thought he gave to the decision, apparently, and he bombs into Mexico without, apparently, having connected the exchange of 200 G's for a child's lungs with committing a major moral boo-boo. The alternating structure makes it hard to follow the long inquisition Paul is subjected to in Mexico: "Who are you, and why are you here?!" he is asked over and over, usually right before being bashed on the nose or forced to withstand a tranny blowjob (oh, you heard me). More damningly, it clouds the film's moral itinerary, so that when Kormakur finally reveals Paul's ultimate destination, it feels more like an ambush than a well-reasoned and recognizable arrival.

Paul grows a conscience only when he has his nose rubbed in the consequences of his pursuit, and he's eager to believe whatever the jaded but possibly morally sound foreign "Doctors Without Nations" volunteer (Vincent Perez) tells him. "We live in a war zone down here," he says. "What is wrong with using dead people to save other lives?" It's a provocative question; equally interesting is the invocation of the law of presumed consent, which privileges a sort of moral logic over individual rights. Unless you have explicitly stated otherwise, the law effectively asserts that the right thing to do in death is donate. In a larger sense the enactment of the law is in line with a collective moral order that recognizes the greater good and presumes that all humans would and/or should default to acting in its service.

The intersection of morals and ethics opened up by medical advances is a rich subject, as are the attendant, ironic pressures those advances put on something more scarce than healthy kidneys: spiritual fortitude. But like the recent and only slightly less fantastical Never Let Me Go, Inhale manages little more than a gesture toward untying its bundled moral knots. Instead it races past them to a big, dirty finish that turns the unscrupulous Paul into a vessel of righteousness and his grasping wife into the embodiment of all that is willfully and morally oblivious on this side of a seething border.