Dir: Francisco Javier Gutierrez. Spain 2008. 93 mins.
The buzz surrounding this Spanish sci-fi thriller at Berlin was fuelled by both the co-production involvement of Antonio Banderas and the news that Euro genre giant Filmax had picked up international rights. It's difficult to see what all the fuss is about: for all its MTV-like, desaturated attitude, Francisco Javier Gutierrez's directorial debut is a surprisingly flat, under-scripted oddity that never makes up its mind whether it wants to be a killer-on-the-loose thriller or an apocalypse drama.
Its cardboard characters and lack of narrative finesse will alienate the arthouse crowd that might otherwise have been attracted by the film's carefully-groomed indie genre look, and a rather nasty child-torture scene near the end will put off parents. Still, Spanish audiences are open to homemade novelties, and Before The Fall (3 Dias) will attract a certain first-weekend interest. But it is likely to fade fast thereafter, and outside its home territory Filmax may struggle with finding theatrical distributors. Auxiliary prospects look more buoyant, as Before the Fall will play best as a DVD Friday-nighter for young audiences looking for artsy horror thrills.
Bitter anti-hero Ale (Clavijo) is an odd-job man in Laguna, a poor, rough-hewn Spanish provincial town whose retro appearance is enhanced by washed-out colour photography. TV news reports soon get the premise out of the way: a huge meteorite is heading for earth, and it's lights out for humanity in around 72 hours. Violence and chaos erupt in town, while Ale plans to get drunk and do nothing. But his mother Rosa (Cordero) goads him out into a barren landscape his brother Tomas's farm.
By this time we know that Soro (Fernandez), a dangerous child-killing convict, is on the loose; we also know that some dark past trauma links Ale with the psychopathic killer - explaining both Ale's fear of heights and his lifelong resentment of Tomas, who stood up to Soro years before and had him arrested. When they arrive at the farm, Tomas and his wife are nowhere to be seen, leaving a reluctant, world-weary Ale in charge of his brother's four children, who are the revenge-obsessed killer's chief targets.
If this brief plot synopsis leaves one wondering what the meteorite has to do with the child-killer, the answer is: absolutely nothing. The end-of-the-world scenario adds little to what is basically a classic horror-jeopardy set-up, except to confer a vaguely doom-laden atmosphere. And the requirement that the kids (who seem untroubled by their parents' vanishing act) never find out about the impending apocalypse imposes a series of increasingly improbable plot contortions. Torn between genres and with an excessive reliance on cliched backstory, Before The Fall feels like it went into production before the screenwriters had come up with a final draft.
Casting genial Fernandez (En la Ciudad, Ficcio) as a deranged child-killer is a smart move, and he makes the most of his limited screen time; but otherwise there's little subtlety to the way the characters are written or acted: Rosa is played as an overwrought Cassandra figure with no shading, while Ale's relentless world-hating sourness is as wearing for the audience as it is for his four underage charges.
All that's left is atmosphere - and with his expressionist lighting techniques, stark colour sense, use of distorting fish eye lenses and mood-matching music (jangling piano, spectral ethnic choirs), the director is fully in charge here. It's just a shame the substance doesn't match up to the style.
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Francisco Javier Gutierrez
Miguel Angel Mora
Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Elvira de Arminan