A teenage trio go on the hunt for revenge in this lacklustre road movie penned by Guillermo Arriaga

Upon Open Sky

Source: Venice Film Festival

‘Upon Open Sky’

Dirs: Mariana Arriaga, Santiago Arriaga. Mexico/Spain. 2023. 118 mins.

The Coahuila desert, a vast, arid expanse that covers much of the border country between Mexico and the USA, provides a suitably unforgiving backdrop for a journey driven by revenge. Two upper middle-class teenage boys, Salvador (Theo Goldin) and his older brother Fernando (Maximo Hollander), still grieving the loss of their father in a road accident two years before, embark on a journey to track down the other driver and hold him to account. Their pretty, telenovela-obsessed new step-sister Paula (Federica Garcia) tags along, initially oblivious to the boys’ bad intentions. But what should be a car full of crackling fraternal tensions feels oddly inert for much of a road movie that runs out of momentum long before it reaches its uneasy conclusion.

A road movie that runs out of momentum long before it reaches its uneasy conclusion

Upon Open Sky is the feature film debut from sister/brother directing duo Mariana Arriaga and Santiago Arriaga, and it is based on a screenplay written by their celebrated screenwriter father Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Amores Perros, Babel) in the 1990s. It’s a moody, slow-burning piece that is markedly less showy and complex than Guillermo Arriaga’s better-known credits. The film’s premiere marks a return to Venice for Mariana Arriaga, whose short film En Defensa Propia screened at the festival in 2016. It’s a handsome, if slightly listless picture that is a little underserved by some of the central performances. Without the narrative hooks (some might say gimmicks) of Arriaga senior’s later works, this might struggle to make much of a mark outside of the domestic market and the festival circuit.

We get a glimpse of life before the tragedy at the film’s opening: it’s 1993 and Salvador, then 12, accompanies his father on a hunting trip. They are full of anticipation for the coming adventure, and the boy clearly relishes the time with his father. The accident, when it happens, is sudden and emphatically final. The screen goes black, but the sound tells us that the other vehicle drives away.

Two years later, short-fused Fernando haunts the local wrecker’s yard, taking a connoisseur’s interest in the shells of crashed cars and speculating about the number of fatalities that each claimed. It is an unhealthy obsession, but one that Fernando seems unable to shake – along with the anger that courses just under his thin skin. The same fixation drives him to search for the driver of the truck that fatally collided with his father’s car. And once he has located the man, to persuade his younger brother to join him on a road trip north with the half-formed idea of ‘fucking him up’.

Paula is initially an unwelcome addition to the venture, as is the clingily attentive boyfriend that she wears, draped around her shoulders like an expensive cardigan. But Paula has deep pockets and expensive tastes, so the boys at least find themselves traveling in style. And she seems unfazed by the discovery that her step-brothers have stolen her father’s gun. None of the siblings are particularly deeply drawn, but Paula in particular is a husk of a character whose motivations are at best opaque, and at worst implausible. 

When the fuel that drives most successful road movies is the chemistry or tension between the characters in the car, it’s hardly surprising that this picture runs out of gas. The dynamic between the three is underdeveloped. A shocking third-act plot device feels unearned. And a climactic desert encounter is oddly lacking in tension.

Production companies: Kramer & Sigman Films, Clave Intelectual

International sales: Film Factory v.canales@filmfactory.es

Producers: Hugo Sigman, Matias Mosteirin, Leticia Cristi,Guillermo Arriaga

Screenplay: Guillermo Arriaga

Cinematography: Julian Apezteguia

Editing: Andres Pepe Estrada

Production design: Carlos Y. Jacques

Music: Ludovico Einaudi

Main cast: Theo Goldin, Federica Garcia, Maximo Hollander, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Sergio Mayer Mori, Julio Bracho, Cecilia Suarez, Manolo Cardona