Review: Marshland (2014)

True Detective in early Post-Franco, early 1980s Spain. What can go wrong? As it turns out, not a whole damned lot.

There are probably more representations of police officers in modern media than there are police forces in Europe, especially in American TV – which is so oversaturated with the genre that it actually feels a little weird where you find a television program and it isn’t some kind of derivation of detective fiction or uses its tropes in some way. With that many examples of detectives in the media, any piece of detective fiction that wants to succeed has to be something really special to stand out amongst the crowd. It has to have a definite quality that you can qualify to anyone, a draw that makes you say: “This is a good film/TV show/book and you should watch it.”

I think Marshland does have that quality.

I think (and judging by the amount of awards that it won I’m not the only one) that it is worthy of praise, discussion, and your attention.

In the press release that was passed to us, Marshland was advertised as being the progeny of US Noir, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004) and the photography of Seville’s Atin Aya. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to read 2666 yet (although his poetry is excellent) and I’m not familiar enough with Aya’s photography to make a critical comparison, so I can only compare it with what I’m familiar with. And personally, when considering Marshland, I often compare it to the first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective (2014) in terms of character design, setting and plot.

Even a quick glance at Marshland’s plot would reveal the comparisons:

Two detectives with drastically different backgrounds from the State CID/ Cuerpo Nacional de Policía are assigned to deal with the murder of a young woman/disappearance and then murder of two young women. While investigating the case, they come across a Lovecraftian voodoo cult/hotbed of corruption within the local authorities.

But, I want to make it known that I’m not criticizing Marshland for its basic premise, nor am I criticizing it because of its premise; as I mentioned, there has been so much cross pollination between it almost certainly wasn’t intentional. More importantly, though, Marshland quickly goes its own way. Nowhere is this more apparent than with setting. While it is true that both True Detective and Marshland present their settings as ruins – remnants of a past now gone, there is much more positivity about life in Marshland than there is in the first season of True Detective. That’s understandable though, the setting of True Detective is rural Louisiana – quintessential Southern Gothic territory – whereas Marshland is set in rural Spain just after the Franco regime had ended. A time of utter hopefulness and utter terror if there ever was one. This uncertainty is also shown in the two detective protagonists, who are seemingly a dichotomy on matters of civil responsibility. Juan Robles (Javier Gutiérrez) – the elder detective – is very much a product of the Franco regime which just ended, while his partner, the young Pedro Suárez (Raúl Arévalo), is very much a man of the New Spain.

Both Gutiérrez and Arévalo play their roles extremely well, with each managing to bring out a lot of charm from an already strong script. Although I’m admittedly not familiar with Spanish cinema, after watching Marshland it’s hard to think of any other actors who could play these roles this well.

If I was forced to be critical, though, I think Gutiérrez gave the stronger performance. While Arévalo was immediately likeable in his role as the young detective and expectant father with his progressive viewpoints on democracy, Gutiérrez managed to infuse the aging Detective Robles with a certain charm that I found endearing – even when watching Robles do illegal things to solve the case. Like watching Gene Hunt, you know this character is corrupt, but you just can’t hate him. No doubt my appreciation for Robles went up when I realized that Alberto Rodríguez was using him as a representation of the old social order that passing away, but even then, for those not feeling as critical, there’s just something endearing about the character. I think the kids these days would say that he’s “Old School”.

In terms of directorship, I think that Alberto Rodríguez (who wrote the script along with Rafael Cobos) did an admirable job. The cinematography is not overly saturated in style, but it is stylistic nonetheless. There’s just enough here to know that you’re watching a film and not enough to distract you, which is exactly how it should be. In particular, I was very impressed with the quality of the one-shots and the opening titles crawl which introduces the film. Ambiguous whether or not it was an aerial shot of the Spanish countryside or an artistic representation of brains, its use added a layer of ambiguity that managed to induce a dread in the audience – before the film has even starts!

Music is used sparingly in Marshlands, however when it does appear it is used exceedingly well. On the one hand, it brings to mind the best works of Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s cinematic work, but on the other hand there is also the always Spanish guitar going on in the background of the tracks. I felt this really managed to ground the film into the Spanish setting. More importantly though, the soundtrack knew when to take a step back and allow the scene to play out without music, which for a film like this works very well.

So, I think it’s safe to say that I very much enjoyed Marshland. It’s stylistic, thrilling, and provides a good mystery. If I did have one complaint, I think it would be that the film is rather graphic. There are certain things shown in the film, which I can’t name because that would spoil it, that I think would have worked better to be implied. It’s unexpected, but it was rather unnecessary to see, and in a movie made as well as this one, I have to wonder why it was included in the first place.

But that’s just my opinion.

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