Saturday, July 7, 2012

In short: The Squad (2011)

Original title: El páramo

Colombia. A squad of soldiers is supposed to secure the perimeter around a fog-shrouded mountain base of their own forces their HQ has lost contact with and wait outside the base until reinforcements arrive. After one of the men - following another of his colleagues who is racing up the mountain to enter the base against all orders - steps onto a mine that blows up his leg and the squad's radio, it becomes necessary for them to bring him into the base's infirmary or let him die.

Once at the base, the squad nor only finds the place empty, but also left in a state that suggests violence and something that's more off than just a guerrilla attack. One of the base's store rooms is filled with scrawled protection spells and has a bloody chicken foot hanging from the ceiling, suggesting madness or something worse. A little later, one of the men realizes that there's a freshly built wall in the store room. Walled in behind it is a tied up woman (Daniela Catz) who seems utterly crazy, which does not exactly come as a surprise given the circumstances. She soon escapes the not very tender mercies of the soldiers, leaving behind the corpse of their sadistic sergeant. After that, the already high tensions and unspoken troubles between the men begin to mount even further, and soon, they begin to crack in different ways, all of them slowly losing their minds just as the men who were at the base before them seem to have had.

It's interesting to realize there are by now enough movies about small groups of soldiers getting stranded in isolated areas with possible supernatural influences and being confronted with their own flaws and guilt to make up their own little sub-genre of generally psychologically complex, often capital-w Weird horror movies. Obviously, this type of horror movie is all too fitting for a time when the illusion of a good war fought by honourable men is something only right wing creeps still possess.

Jaime Osorio Marquez's Colombian variation (part of what looks like a minor horror wave from that country) on the form and the expected themes is a very fine film, putting heavy emphasis on a decrepit and doomed mood and characterisation that is more subtle than I at first expected. How supernatural the supernatural agency in this particular case actually is kept ambiguous until the bitter end; it's never completely clear if the soldiers are punishing themselves or if they have stepped under the influence of a punishing force; if the woman they find is a pitiable victim of men just like them, or something come to punish them, or just a shared hallucination.

Marquez keeps the reasons for the soldiers' guilt ambiguous for a long time too, and when it's time for him to reveal them, he's not going the long-winded flashback route and instead trusts his audience to understand things even if they aren't explained in excruciating detail. Not surprisingly, it's a decision that makes an already strong film even stronger and more emotionally resonant; the details of the soldiers' war crimes aren't - after all - important when it comes to showing us their guilt and their descent into open madness. The film seems to suggest that the protagonists were already "mad" when they did what now comes to haunt them, but that this hidden form of madness is really what is expected of soldiers; losing one's humanity is par for the course.


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