Narrative Reviews

Lone Wolves (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Sergi Arnau

Writer: Sergi Arnau

Cast: Joel Minguet, Pau Barredo, Martí Peraferrer, Joan Massotkleiner, José Antoni Marín, Fred Adenis, Mont Plans

Running time: 1hr 20mins

If you ever wondered what Oz would have been like if it starred Pep Guardiola, this is the film for you. That might not be the recommendation writer and director Sergi Arnau had hoped for, but it is a rather accurate assessment of this strange hodgepodge film – in places fantastically realised, in others frustratingly discordant.

When I interviewed Arnau about his labour of love – Lone Wolves took him five years to complete, on a shoe-string budget – he billed it as “a prison drama with an episodic character structure, similar to that of Reservoir Dogs,” adding that it is “a choral film with a multitude of characters, and during the film and through the character episodes, we will discover the motivations of each character and why they ended up in prison.”

Unfortunately, Arnau’s first feature does not deliver on this promise as effectively as Tarantino’s debut did. While it is true you can see certain nods to Reservoir Dogs throughout – including a story hinging on an undercover cop surrounded by violent criminals, soundtracked by a lethargic radio DJ – what really enabled the 1992 film’s apparently disparate parts to gel together was its patience in building up its central relationships.

Over the course of a number of drawn-out linguistic set-pieces where the gang argues the toss about tipping waitresses or their backward attitudes to race relations, through all the barbs and banter we come to see what makes our characters tick, and how they relate to one another in a way that raises the stakes when things go south during their ill-fated heist. In Lone Wolves, however, it is difficult to work out why anyone cares about anyone else, besides us being verbally told of their formal ties to one another.

Our protagonist Vic (the distractingly Guardiola-esque Joel Minguet) cares about his Mother (Mont Plans) because she is his Mother, and the film assumes viewers inherently have warm relationships with their parents, so leaves us to fill in the gaps. He cares about his partner Toni (Pau Barredo) because he is his partner, and the film assumes we know from other culture that there is a trope that cops are close to their partners, so that’s left for us to work out too. We do not see a single moment of levity or camaraderie between Vic and his weather-beaten partner, and the only moment he appears on-screen with his Mother, he is unconscious, making any kind of meaningful exchange impossible.

Vic might very well know what these two people mean to him in his life, but we certainly don’t. This means when these relationships are compromised, either through kidnapping or betrayal, it is difficult to give much of a damn. It is a shame, because the lead performances – particularly that of the grizzled Barredo – are of an impeccable standard, leaving a glaring disparity between the emotive guile of the cast and the rather pedestrian material they were given to work with.

This becomes even more grating when the two uniformed policemen go ‘undercover’ in a Spanish prison. Having foiled a cocaine deal, the duo is punished by a knowing crime-lord, who kidnaps Vic’s Mother. She will only be released if the pair infiltrates a jail to assassinate a seemingly random goon. Their superior (Martí Peraferrer) is the only person on the outside to know of their scheme, while inside only the Warden (Joan Massotkleiner) is aware.

This requires a particularly stringent suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, as a prison filled with the foot-soldiers of Spain’s criminal empires are apparently unaware that a pair of uniformed cops – one who closely resembles one of Spain’s most famous football managers – is among them. The need for viewers to overlook logistical problems only grows when the identity of the planned hit is revealed as a member of the witness protection programme, who is integral to a case that could see four senators jailed – so integral that he has seemingly been stowed away in the nation’s most dangerous, poorly regulated prison. And when things inevitably go awry, and Vic and Toni’s superior is murdered, we expected to believe that, as in The Departed, they are doomed to serve full custodial sentences, despite both being on the police payroll. Eventually, somebody is going to wonder where their egg-headed colleague and his leather-faced chum have disappeared to.

One of the things Lone Wolves definitely does pull off is the casting of its inmates – who are a suitably grotesque band of obese, hairy men, sweating and wheezing their way through custodial sentences. Again, unfortunately the cast is not as effectively used as it might have been, however. El Rey (or ‘The King’, played by José Antoni Marín) is the best example of this as possibly the most repulsive of all the characters. His nickname suggests he unofficially runs the facility – and in a series of particularly unpleasant scenes he shows what his power and influence enable him to do to inmates he takes a shine to – however, we don’t see how he maintains his status in the jailhouse hierarchy. Everyone is willing to do anything he asks, and the prison riots when he pays the price for his crimes, but it is impossible to fathom why – El Rey did not supply people with sought-after commodities from the outside world, or protection, or weapons; all he seemingly brought to the table was violent, non-consensual sodomy.

The discordance of the film’s story and delivery is also present in most of its technical facets. Cinematographer Heran Yang seems to have been torn constantly between wanting to practice documentarian cinematic realism, and to emulate the moody neon glow of neo-noir films like Drive. Both styles are pulled off with aplomb if viewed singularly and out of context, but they clash with each other in the same film. Meanwhile Pol Parés’ bipolar soundtrack is broadly excellent, packed with roaring sirens and pulsating synth bass – but every so often it flares up into disjointed pop-punk numbers which immediately snap us from the trance the score’s earlier efforts had put us in.

Looking at the film holistically, the best thing about it is the editing. According to director Arnau, this was the aspect of the production which took him longest to complete, and while I might have had plenty to say about the conflicting pieces of this puzzle, he has managed to construct them into a single, coherent piece of filmmaking. I’m not sure I would call it “choral” still, but it is impressive that he has managed to weave a cohesive narrative out of all the overlapping stories.

Perhaps what this film is best as is a showreel then – displaying a diversity of talents and tones which its cast and crew are capable of hitting in any given production. While that is not something which necessarily makes for compelling cinema in its own right, I do hope it will help Arnau and co. make inroads into the film industry, because for all the foibles of this particular piece, there is a lot of raw talent on display here.

Over the course of a filmmaker’s showreel, bits and pieces of material flit across the screen which would clash if they were housed in the same story – but when taken as standalone morsels of potential, they can show the range of an up-and-coming talent’s individual prowess. This is probably the most favourable way to view Lone Wolves – a glossy but confused mass of disconnected ideas, any scene of which could be taken as proof of technical skill, if not well-measured story-telling. On this basis, considering it was crafted by a band of capable film graduates who Spain’s film industry was reluctant to take a chance on, this is a very successful means for them showcase their talents.

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