Opening with a deliberately unsettling static forest landscape and adorned with an equally intriguing score, Chilean director Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’ third feature “To Kill a Man” is a quietly powerful character study that meditates on the ramifications of a family man’s choice to defend his kind.
Constantly harassed by the neighborhood’s thugs without showing any visible intention to retaliate, Jorge (Daniel Candia) is a working class man whose sole priority is his family’s well-being. This perennially expected duty from males in patriarchal societies doesn’t quite fit his weakened spirit: His passive demeanor prevents him from protecting them, as does his debilitating diabetes. As emasculated as the character is presented, he works at a forest research facility doing heavy physical labor in the ruggedness of nature.
On the night of his son Jorgito’s 18th birthday, Jorge is attacked by Kalule (Daniel Antivilo), the vicious leader of a ruthless local gang, who strips him of his vital insulin needle and makes it clear who’s in control. Silently defeated, Jorge returns home to his frightened wife Marta (Alejandra Yañez) and children. As a result, his son decides to take matters into his own hands by confronting the robust villain. Their encounter rapidly ventures into near-tragedy when the man fires at the feisty teenager. Kalule also shoots himself in an act of self-preservation in order to claim he defended himself from both Jorge and the kid. His argument is rendered invalid in court, where he is condemned to serve a minor sentence.
The real ordeal for Jorge and his family begins when Kalule is released and continues to regularly torment them with the help of his mindless stooges. Broken and traumatized by the increasingly violent threats, the family tries to resolve the problem with legal action, a decision that proves ineffective. Eventually, Jorge realizes he must pursue a more lethal path.
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Despite at times feeling as subdued as the protagonist himself, Fernandez’s screenplay takes a few turns along the way that transmute the film into something that exists in greater intellectual territory than the average exploitative-revenge drama. Enduring a system that dismisses intent and ignores prevention leaves the family at the mercy of their attacker — unless they suffer serious damage. That means they have to wait until the worse case scenario materializes in order to be saved. On the opposite site of that dilemma comes the notion that everyone is innocent until proven guilty with sufficient evidence. Whether this is a dangerous presumption or a fair procedure in a functional society is debatable. Fernandez’s intent is not to reassure either position, but to conclude that everyone is capable of being righteous or vengeful given the right situation.
The meticulously calculated tension that permeates the film reaches its peak in a particularly riveting sequence in which Jorge uses a car’s alarm both as a symbolic battle cry. No longer docile, he chooses to fight fire with fire. As subtly intense as the film itself, Candia is on point embodying the fragility of a man transformed both by the emotional necessity to not be humiliated and a prevalent urge to survive.
Sitting at the beach contemplating his violent actions, Jorge ponders the consequences of such brutality. Through unspoken implications, it’s clear that he has formed an unlikely bond with his oppressor. “To Kill a Man” concludes with the disturbing duality in which the killer and his prey exist in interchangeable states.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? International festival play is guaranteed, but the prospects of a domestic distributor are severely limited, although it could find a home on VOD.