REVIEW: Carancho Delivers Sleek, Stirring Argentine Noir

Movieline Score: 8

For the first long stretch of Pablo Trapero's Carancho, the camera swerves and wends behind, around and in front of its subjects, brokering space and mapping their movements with smooth, sympathetic constancy. It follows Sosa (Ricardo Darín) and it follows Luján (Martina Gusman), two professionals who cruise the streets of Buenos Aires at night with a vaguely overlapping purpose. Luján is a paramedic and Sosa is a personal injury lawyer. In Argentina, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people under 35, so their nights are long.

Their paths cross and re-cross, each time with a little more intensity. The relationship that takes shape is spatial before it's emotional, or even actual: That gliding camera work seems to arrow Sosa and Luján toward each other even when they're together, which is briefly. Even in their tranquil moments, Trapero is charting a convergent path.

Just as a microeconomy sprang up to feed on the kidnapping epidemic in Brazil (bulletproof cars went mass market; plastic surgeons pioneered ear reconstruction for the mutilated), the rise of the "carancho" (or vulture) in the legal profession is tied to Argentina's terrible accident record. Sosa crossed over to the dark side after he was disbarred and went into debt, and he works for a shadowy consortium called "The Foundation," which helps victims and their families sue for damages and then helps itself to an exorbitant share of the insurance money. Luján, meanwhile, is a doctor from the provinces who shoots speed into her feet to stay awake on the triple shifts demanded of her to survive and move up at the hospital. Eventually both characters, ostensibly working in service of the public good, begin to look like prisoners of their respective broken institutions.

"If it could have been avoided," Sosa tells a potential client, "it's not an accident -- it's an incident." His clear, sober gaze goes a long way in gaining trust. Luján, an impassive beauty with hooded eyes, agrees to a date after Sosa convinces a hospital to admit one of Luján's patients during their first encounter. She's well aware of the caranchos who hover at the fringes of accident scenes, but Sosa doesn't quite fit the part. We get a sense of the way the part has re-sized him in the next scene: He agrees to help a friend in need of money by faking a gruesome injury and then staging an accident. Naturally, the plan goes hideously awry, and both Sosa and Luján have an incident on their hands.

Carancho's sleek aesthetic builds a structural confidence into the story that is not quite matched by the story itself. Written by Trapero and three others, the script drops off when it needs to step up, and as a result the film's spiral into circumstantial chaos is not wound as tightly and effectively as it might have been. Sosa's past and the cause of his troubles, in the noir antihero tradition, is a shadowy domain; how and why he got hooked up with The Foundation is insufficiently clear, and so is the hold they have on him. When his colleagues begin to exert that hold with increasing violence, their sudden potency seems more a function of plot than dastardly consequence.

Trapero's evocation of the love story, by contrast, is effortlessly subtle: The lonely, craven atmosphere he creates sets the significance of the bond between Sosa and Luján into poignant, fragile relief. Carancho moves into heist mode in its final act, and the lovingly balanced, placid frames give way to thrilling turbulence. This Buenos Aires is a city of collisions, something we are told early on but absorb with indelible force as Carancho races toward its final impact.