It’s been a while since I last tried a foreign-language oddity. Kudos to Netflix for delivering something that might not even have hit my local arthouses in the Before Times.
Below Zero is the sophomore feature of co-writer/director Lluis Quilez, out of Spain. As the title implies, the film is set in the dead of winter, at a time when fog has severely impaired visibility and the ground is covered in snow. That strikes me as odd, given how such weather is notably rare in Spain, but whatever.
Our protagonist is Martin, played by Javier Gutierrez. He’s a cop who’s just been transferred to a local prison to assist Montesinos (Isak Ferriz) with the transfer of six prisoners.
- Ramis (Luis Callejo) is the mastermind
- Mihai (Florin Opritescu) is the psychopathic crime lord
- Guillermo (aka “Gollum”, played by Andres Gertrudix) is the junkie
- Rei (Edgar Vittorino) was put in jail for savagely assaulting his sister’s rapist
- Pardo (Miquel Gelabert) is the political extremist
- Nano (Patrick Criado) is a street punk who’s been in and out of prison his whole life
Everything goes off the rails when the armored prison truck is ambushed by Miguel (Karra Elejalde), a shadowy figure who wants one of the prisoners for his own mysterious purposes. Long story short (too late!), Miguel slaughters pretty much everyone except for Martin and five of the prisoners. The prisoners escape and immediately turn on the cop in the room, as everyone tries to figure out what Miguel wants and how to get out of this situation alive. Hilarity ensues.
There’s a lot to like about the film. The claustrophobic setting and the dark foggy exteriors help to create a suspenseful mood on a low budget. The kills are suitably gory. All the characters — except the shortest-lived prisoners — are sympathetic to some extent, at least to the point where we can understand where they’re coming from.
There’s some pretty standard thematic material in here, with regards to the hostile co-dependence between cops and criminals, the limits of the law, the moral quandaries of vigilante actions, and so on. But this movie throws a neat subversive twist with the big reveal of where Miguel came from and what his motivation is.
Another neat little wrinkle comes early on, as Martin is introduced replacing a flat tire on the family car. It’s presented as a metaphor for the disposable nature of people — we do our job, we die or wear out, we get replaced, and nobody bats an eye. It brings a neatly morbid flavor to the proceedings, and to the themes at play.
Alas, the big problem here is the plot. I’m sorry to say that this is another one of those movies in which the filmmakers had to tie the script into so many convoluted knots to get everything where it needed to go. Probably the most egregious case is a character who straight-up comes back from the dead, only to die (for real) in a futile blaze of glory. Another favorite example comes at the climax, when a character is supposedly stuck in a corner, except for the massive glaring escape route that’s plainly visible in the other direction.
The length is a significant part of the script problems here. Even at 106 minutes, the film is quite visibly padded. I have no idea why the filmmakers went to such lengths in crafting extraneous scenes to fill out the runtime, but it causes more problems than it solves. Hell, the movie is set on a hijacked prison truck — you’d think this movie would’ve been built for speed and forward momentum!
Ultimately, Below Zero evens out to “straightforward”. It’s a suspense action film that’s good for passing a bit of time and immediately forgetting. And really, for a 100-minute mid-budget foreign film with no marquee names, that’s about what’s reasonable to expect.
Go ahead and give it a look if you’re curious.