Director: Alberto Rodríguez
Cast: Raúl Arévalo, Javier Gutiérrez, Nerea Barros, Antonio de la Torre
Watch Marshland online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The centre of the Venn diagram containing fans of both True Detective and Spanish cinema will go a swampy, sultry bundle on this noir mystery from director Alberto Rodríguez. Set in the lowlands of the Guadalquivir Marshes, Spain’s equivalent of America’s deep south, Marshland follows two ideologically-opposed policeman as they hunt for the killer of two local girls. Stunningly shot and layered with socio-political subtext, it’s a slow-burning pot-boiler.
As the film opens with a series of achingly gorgeous drone shots looking down on the marshes, you already begin to get a sense of what Rodríguez is getting at. The rivers and tributaries resemble the patterns of the human brain, as if sliced and laid out in the world’s most artistic autopsy. This is a complex, thinky thriller, where the overused cliché of the location being a character has never been truer.
Set in post-Franco 1980s Spain, a country in limbo between dictatorship and democracy, Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos’ script may require a working knowledge of late 20th century Spanish political history to truly appreciate the depth of the work. If you’re not a student of such matters, there’s a distinct sense that you’re missing out, for the actual detective work – while undeniably thorough and logical – fails to engage as much as genre fans might hope.
As the two cops find themselves busted down from their city jobs and posted to the middle of nowhere to investigate a double murder, they immediately pick up a trail and follow it step-by-step to some kind of conclusion, and that’s all well and good. This primary narrative is knotty and requires your full attention; pop out for a cuppa without pausing and you’ll come back to a baffling experience. But while leads Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez are excellent, Marshland’s police procedural is a strangely flat experience. A brief car chase and a rain-lashed finale raise the pulse a little, but for the most part, it’s a dour and understated film, where you wish some of the things that go unspoken had been shouted from the rooftops.
A seed of mistrust between the pair is sown early on, and while it lurks in the background like a shadow, it never rears its head enough to raise the stakes. Revelations that feel like they should have a tectonic effect do little more than raise unsatisfactorily unanswered questions; maybe that’s Rodríguez making more societal commentary, but if so it’s to the detriment of the story.
Even if its climax frustrates, Marshland works well as an atmospheric and well-crafted detective film. Scenes of primitive wire-tapping evoke the time period with a wry smile, but it’s about the only fun you’ll have; nobody’s saying the search for a brutal murderer should be a slapstick affair but this is downbeat to the extreme. If you like your murder-mysteries subtle and intellectual, this is for you, but don’t expect Hollywood storytelling. Rodríguez’ film is its own beast, and that won’t be to everyone’s liking.