Once you’ve seen “New Order,” you’ll never look at green paint again without shuddering. In Michel Franco’s harrowing, ultra-violent coup d’etat thriller, lurid green paint is what crowds of anti-government protesters throw at cars and riot shields, so it’s a spine-tingling moment when a woman turns on the tap in her swanky bathroom and the water gushes green. A minute later, the water is clear again, but there is no mistaking the omen. This is not going to be a good day.
It all starts promisingly for Marianne (Naian González Norvind), the daughter of a wealthy Mexican businessman. She’s about to get married in the chic city-center house designed by her architect brother (Diego Boneta): all those glass walls, reminiscent of the ones in “Parasite,” are perfect for glimpsing protesters outside. As groups of well-dressed movers and shakers boast about the planning permits they’ve finagled, and as their scions knock back champagne and cocaine, she dashes from room to room, greeting guests, chivvying the indigenous servants, stashing wedding presents (invariably cash-stuffed envelopes) into a safe, and keeping an eye out for the judge who will marry her and the similarly affluent groom.
The trouble is, the judge is held up in traffic because protesters have blockaded the streets. The disruption has even spread as far as the city’s public hospital, where one of the family’s former servants was due to have a heart operation, and so the sick woman’s husband (Eligio Meléndez), another ex-servant, turns up at the wedding to ask for 200,000 pesetas to fund a private operation.
The scene is set for a sly satirical farce about class division, and keeping up appearances when your privileged lifestyle is disrupted. The clock ticks, the plot thickens, and then — boom — a gang of protesters scales the house’s garden walls, and we are suddenly watching a gleefully gory home-invasion shocker. Don’t get attached to any of the characters. It’s a jaw-dropping switch in tone and genre and then — boom again — Franco plays the same trick a second time. The action jumps forward to the weeks that follow the civil unrest, and we are plunged into a nightmare of lootings, shootings, torture, blackmail and martial law.
Threaded through these scenes of a society’s collapse — imagine an even grimmer “Children of Men” — is the abduction of one character and the efforts of some other characters to secure their safe return. After the wedding sequence, though, it isn’t just an individual or a family’s sufferings that make the viewer squirm, but a whole country’s. “New Order” shows crime and corruption pervading every part of Mexico, like green paint in the water supply: the national flag is seen twice, rippling in slow-motion. It’s a bold, angry, provocative indictment, but because Franco zooms back to the state-of-the-nation big picture, he loses sight of the characters who were sketched so sharply in the opening scenes. They’re still in the film, but they have so little agency and dialogue that they are reduced to counters on a board – or ants for him to scorch beneath his magnifying glass.
The initial moral ambiguities shrink away, too. The first act asks how responsible the working-class protesters are for the characters’ plight – it was protesters who stopped a poor woman having the operation she needed, after all – and whether anyone is obliged to hand over cash to someone they haven’t seen in eight years. But the rest of “New Order” replaces such complex questions with one simple statement: everything is awful.
Eventually, the relentless horror has a distancing effect. There are only so many loud, shattering gunshots you can hear and close-ups of terrified faces you can see before they become numbing. “New Order” is endurance cinema that reaches Haneke and von Trier levels of walk-out-ability. But ultimately you stop hoping that the grisly ordeal might come to any kind of edifying conclusion, and start wondering how much more you can take. Worse, you stop lamenting the injustice, and start reassuring yourself that, well, at least things around us aren’t quite as bad as they are in “New Order.” Sadly, none of Franco’s examples of greed, urban chaos, or extra-judicial killing is far-fetched at the moment, but because he stacks these examples on top of each other, a mini-series’ worth of Orwellian calamity in a trim 86 minutes, his vision ends up seeming more like dystopian science-fiction than contemporary reality.
Still, it’s rare to see a film this merciless in its brutality. “New Order” is sure to become a cult favorite among people who like their films to be traumatizing, although other people will be repulsed by Franco’s sadistic tendencies. The closing credits go by with no music over them, but music might have been a waste, anyway. After viewers have got over their shellshocked silence, the soundtrack could well be drowned out by cheers or boos.
“New Order” premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.