On average, 22 people are killed in traffic accidents every day in Argentina. That's over 8000 deaths a year, with an estimated 12000 suffering injuries through incidents on the road. These statistics open Pablo Trapero's Carancho, along with some grisly black-and-white photographs of wrecked cars and lives, but the most telling line is yet to come: "The compensation market is booming." Where there is tragedy, you'll find people ready to pounce and profit from the misery of others. Carancho translates as "The Vulture," and its central character lives up to that description. He's an ambulance-chasing lawyer who spends his evenings listening in on the police radio so he can be first at the scene. Sosa (Ricardo Darín) immediately goes after the victims with the aim of getting them to sign their power of attorney over to people he works for, ensuring a hefty slice of the insurance money they should be receiving will instead go to his employers.
On one level, Trapero's film is a critique of Argentinean society's dark underbelly and a study of the conflicted souls who traverse it, but it's also a love story between two complex characters who meet under unusual circumstances, and their relationship is vital for giving this uneven movie a gripping emotional thrust. Luján (Martina Gusman) is a young doctor burning the candle at both ends in one of the city's many hectic emergency rooms. For the extra money, she works an additional ambulance shift, but these long hours are taking their toll; Luján has developed a serious drug problem and the beautiful Gusman appears gaunt and ghostlike in her appearance. Both of these troubled characters see an opportunity for positive change in the other, but they approach with caution. Can she fall in love with a man whose profession repels her? Can he risk dragging her into the murky, dangerous world he exists in? Can they both escape their fates and find a better life together?
Ricardo Darín will be a familiar face to many filmgoers having appeared in two of Argentina's major crossover films in the past decade, Nine Queens and the Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes. He's a great leading man, possessing a soulful quality that underpins his authorative but unshowy performances. Perfectly cast as a decent character deeply conflicted over the path he has chosen, he gives a superb display that quickly captivates the audience and earns its empathy. Martina Gusman may be less well known than her co-star, but she is no less talented. She gave an outstanding performance in 2008's Lion's Den – also directed by Trapero (her husband) – and she fully invests herself in a character who is barely holding it all together. The director makes great use of Gusman's big, tired-looking eyes, and the central couple have a wonderful, fragile chemistry.
Of course, Trapero puts them through the mill during Carancho's bruising 107 minutes. He's a tough, confrontational filmmaker who delights in setting the audience on edge and plunging us into the midst of the often-violent action. He does this with consummate skill and confidence too, orchestrating some impressive sequences with inventive camerawork and sharp editing. Julián Apezteguia's cinematography creates an evocative, noir-ish atmosphere, and it all adds up into a pretty formidable package, but something about Carancho just doesn't hang together. Trapero sometime struggles to segue elegantly between the slightly over-plotted thriller aspect of his movie and the quieter, more intimate scenes between Darín and Gusman, and the film sometimes fails to flow as smoothly as I hoped it would, but it's always stimulating and always engrossing, right up to its extraordinarily ambitious climax. Regardless of how involved you are with the movie to that point, Carancho's ending will leave you reeling.