Two Colombian men attempt to smuggle cocaine up the Pacific. That's the slim, basic trajectory of director Josef Kubota Wladyka's first feature, "Manos Sucias," and it rarely ventures beyond those restrictions. But that very minimalism gives its drama a personal quality steeped in the desperation of its lower class anti-heroes. Shot on location in and around Buenaventura, the movie has a frantic, gritty energy attuned to its characters' frustrations—not unlike the fiery sentiments found in the most polemical output of Spike Lee, who serves as an executive producer. Even so, Wladyka's debut has a more claustrophobic feel than anything in Lee's oeuvre; running just under 75 minutes, it's a fierce snapshot of reckless behavior enacted by helpless men.
At its center is Delio (Cristian James Abvincula), a pouty young black man eager to leave "that fucking construction job" and find a better life for his wife and infant child. In an early scene, he complains about economic and racial hindrances alike, pointing out to a friend that even in Bogota, the only black people work in servant jobs. These moments arrive as a flashback shortly after the establishing scene in which Delio joins forces with fisherman Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) to take on the uneasy job of cruising up the Pacific with their clandestine sack of drugs. As a result, the fleeting scenes in Buenaventura are weighted with dread: Delio has lost faith in any chance of a secure route to stability, which seals his fate in dangerous waters.
The ensuing narrative largely unfolds with just the two men on the boat, alternately discussing their fears, aspirations and the prospects of their scheme. Cinematographer Alan Blanco (who also co-wrote the screenplay with the director) capably frames much of the movie in closeups, allowing the dual protagonists' scowling, worried expressions to drive the story forward, while the grey ocean provides an abstract backdrop that highlights the sheer emptiness of their ambition.
The restrained setting has many precedents: While one could easily place "Manos Sucias" in a tradition stretching back to Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," a more contemporary reference point would be Lucy Malloy's 2012 drama "Una Noche," in which a trio of young Cubans attempt to row from Havana to Miami under similarly dire conditions.
But in "Manos Sucias," the men are as much a hazard to their situation as the uneasy waters around them. As they slowly progress toward a drop-off point, communicating with their menacing contacts on rickety cell phones, Wladyka regularly cuts to a POV of the ramshackle torpedo weighed down with 100kg of cocaine trailing their boat from a few feet away. Its watery perspective effectively conveys the murkiness of their only hope.
While marked by a pair of brooding performances, however, "Manos Sucias" isn't consumed by dreariness at every moment. An aspiring rapper, Abvincula's character has a playful demeanor that regularly surfaces whenever the action temporarily subsides; Martinez, playing an older, more professionally focused figure, radiates a paternal generosity toward his younger peer that ultimately leads him to adopt frightening measures for the sake of their survival. A vibrant soundtrack of local Colombian melodies hints at the happier world just beyond their reach. The movie regularly establishes a calm state only to veer back to duress: the duo's cozy discussion about soccer around the fire one night is counteracted by a sudden violent outbreak moments later; the final act arrives without warning and unfolds with a heightened sense of anguish.
"Manos Sucias" culminates with a singularly harsh act that takes its characters into much darker territory. Nevertheless, it's not much of a surprise when the movie gets there, given the limited range of possibilities for this minor drama. The lasting impression is one of several powerful moments strung together rather than a fully developed plot. Yet it's exactly that stripped down element that imbues "Manos Sucias" with a ragged feel not unlike the uncertain world inhabited by its leading men.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its Tribeca premiere, "Manos Sucias" will play at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and is destined to gather acclaim on the Latino festival circuit. In the hands of a distributor able to maintain the interest of this audience, it should yield some healthy buzz and could wind up in the foreign language awards race, although wider commercial prospects are limited.