Located somewhere between “The Florida Project” and “Fury Road,” Julio Hernández Cordón’s precocious and arresting “Buy Me a Gun” is a neo-realist fable that’s seen through the eyes of a child and set in a world ruled by fear. It’s a major work in a minor key, a movie that gracefully straddles the line between the tenuousness of the present day and the violence of the post-apocalyptic thunderdome we’re all racing towards, real and unreal all at once.
We know where the story takes place, but the when of it is pointedly unclear. “Mexico,” the opening text declares. “No precise date. Everything, absolutely everything, is run by the cartels. The population has declined due to the lack of women.” And then we’re dropped into the dark of night. A little girl is locked in a cage, while men with machine guns laugh by a fire in the distance. Three young boys disguised as small trees scamper away into the brush. It almost seems like they’re having fun. One of the kids is missing an arm, but he’s hatched a plan to steal it back from the bandits who chopped it off.
This is what the wasteland looks like during a period of transition — after the rule of law but before “Fury Road” or the rise of Lord Humungus. It’s the drug-related violence of contemporary Mexico stretched to its logical conclusion, the horror so perfect that it casts a pall of dark enchantment over everything it touches. The kids may not love it, but it’s the only world they’ve ever known. That’s especially true for Huck (Matilde Hernández Guinea), a rambunctious innocent who’s still too wide-eyed about life to focus on the death that surrounds her. “Everything that is told in this movie is real,” she chirps over the soundtrack. “Luck is real, and so are lucky men… they pass it down to their daughters.”
Rogelio (Rogelio Sosa), Huck’s father, doesn’t strike us as a particularly lucky man. A ratty meth addict who works as a groundskeeper at the local cartel’s favorite baseball field (and lives in a trailer near home plate), Rogelio seems to be one of God’s less fortunate creatures. His wife and their other kids have all been disappeared, and Rogelio is still at the mercy of the men who took them — he depends on the cartel for his precious packets of white rock, and also to spare his last remaining child.
Even though the cartel’s terrifying leader (Sostenes Rojas, hidden behind a black balaclava) has agreed to pretend that Huck is a boy, Rogelio still forces her to disguise her face with a hulk mask, and to fasten a long chain around her ankle every time she goes outside. Such fancifully medieval touches clash against the modernity of smartphones, sparking a strange and beguiling friction whenever they share the same frame. Likewise, the buoyancy of Huck’s character is oblivious to the cruelty of her condition, and Cordón makes beautiful music from the dissonance between the state of her mind and the state of her being.
The result is a radically urgent film that’s guided by the logic of a bad dream and filtered through the imagination of a brave child, distorting the hellish reality of cartel violence in order to clarify its grim absurdity. Cordón doesn’t need much plot to get the point across — “Buy Me a Gun” kicks into gear after Rogelio murders a henchman and is ordered to make an appearance at the boss’ birthday party the following night — as every moment deepens the disequilibrium between fear and survival.
Take the sequence where Rogelio cooks his drugs in a lightbulb, and blows purple smoke out of a trumpet once he’s high. Or the harrowing beat where Huck (whose name calls attention to her conscience) spies the cartel boss taking off their mask to reveal a beautiful mane of long black hair. Or the way that Cordón depicts the aftermath of a massacre: a bird’s-eye drone shot drifts over the carnage, only to find that the bodies have been painted flat onto the ground.
The American-born son of a Mexican father and a Guatemalan mother, Cordón has always been interested in the dehumanization and erasure of civil unrest, but previous work like “Gasolina” and “Polvo” don’t fully account for the mastery on display in “Buy Me a Gun.” It’s rare to see a film that so vividly uses beauty and banality to clarify each other, Cordón evoking “Children of Men” in how he depicts murder from the dispassionate perspective of someone who’s just trying to find a way through it.
“Buy Me a Gun” ekes out a similar mote of optimism by the end of its too-brief 79 minutes, but the hope we’re left for Huck’s future doesn’t compensate for how little we get to see her of present. After creating such a richly believable land of ruin (proof that strong world-building doesn’t require a large budget), it’s a shame that Cordón boots us out just as the story appears to be gearing up for its big third act. It feels as incomplete as “Infinity War,” but without the promise that Captain Marvel is on her way. This extraordinary movie doesn’t need another second of screen time to illustrate how violence continues to reflect the indifference of those who try to harness it for themselves, but it’s still hard to appreciate a sketch — even an indelible one — after being convinced that you’re watching someone paint his “Guernica.”
“Buy Me a Gun” premiered as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.