Written by: Tania Cardenas, Jaime Osorio Marquez, Diego Vivanco
Directed by: Jaime Osorio Marquez
Starring: Juan Pablo Barragán, Alejandro Aguilar, and Mauricio Navas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Something is out there.
Colombia has been mired in a civil conflict for over fifty years, which is quite frankly astounding and horrifying all at once. Out of this fog of war comes The Squad, a 2011 psychological thriller that aims to take stock of what it must be like to be mired in such a conflict. It’s certainly an ambitious film in this respect, one that attempts to capture what a pressure cooker war can be—it’s the sort of hell I imagine can never truthfully be done justice in any sort of media, but The Squad makes this its primary concern, with its horror elements taking a backseat for nearly the duration of its runtime, an approach that leaves audiences with the realization that war, perhaps, is horrific enough.
Director Jaime Osorio Marquez lays a familiar scene: in the midst of war, a group of soldiers is sent to investigate a stronghold. Despite warnings to take a highly cautious approach, one of the men rashly charges the place, only to discover absolute desolation. Contrary to reports, this site—a rumored breeding ground for opposing guerilla fighters—is eerily empty, save for the presence of a mysteriously captive woman. As the platoon continues to investigate the outpost, they continue to discover mysterious warnings and intonations hinting at a sinister fate for its previous occupants, all of whom apparently went mad and turned against each other while under the woman’s spell…maybe.
See, the film presents the mysterious woman’s witchcraft as a possible explanation for the squad’s eventual breakdown and lets it dangle. It’s an interesting approach, sort of like what you might find in a found footage film: a bare minimum mythology (one of the soldiers notes that the incantations they find are used in local, superstitious villages to ward off evil) sets the stage before the characters find themselves at the (possible) mercy of it. In The Squad, there’s little question that something is wrong here, but it may or may not be due to witchcraft. The film engages its ambiguity in an interesting manner, as the woman’s presence becomes something of a metaphor for how war operates, with her sorcery acting as a stand-in for the orders soldiers receive: at what point does one stop blaming outside forces and start reckoning with the atrocities they’ve committed? It’s hard to tell for a while, but this is the sort of stuff The Squad is mulling over.
Unfortunately, it’s not exactly riveting while doing so. Once the possibility of witchcraft enters the picture, audiences are left waiting for either some kind of confirmation or profound revelation, with only the latter eventually unfolding at the film’s conclusion (and it’s not even that profound, really). In the interim, The Squad essentially hums along on the same wavelength from the outset: after the spooky opening, the film degenerates into the group of largely anonymous soldiers bickering and turning on each other. Those who do distinguish themselves adhere to expected types: the main character is the sensitive sort who only wants to survive in order to reunite with his wife and child, while his superiors are hard-asses hell-bent on maintaining orders and holding down the fort at all costs. Save for a mist-shrouded episode that ends tragically, most of their interactions are very similar and become wearisome; at 107 minutes long, The Squad feels a tad too bloated and repetitive to maintain its tension, especially since it relies on a climatic reveal that falls flat.
Obviously, The Squad begs comparison to The Thing, and it does feel like the sweatier, grungier B-side to Carpenter’s film. Marquez employs the same sort of techniques and outlook by championing tension, suspense, and atmosphere over unrelenting gore, with the latter only serving as violent accents to underpin the soldiers’ deteriorating psyches. The air is of course thick with paranoia, as no one is quite sure what and who to trust, including their own senses at times. Here, the nature of the threat is more psychological when compared to the extraterrestrial in The Thing, and its wildly ambiguous nature is both more frustrating and somewhat compelling—these soldiers’ continual passing of the buck to external elements (be it the “witch” or the guerrillas, both of which serve as boogeymen and scapegoats) is the backbone that enables The Squad to separate itself somewhat. What the film truly lacks is a group of indelible characters to allow the conflict to resonate: while the performances here are adequate, the characterizations are too thin and broad to be effective (one black character is literally named “Negro” to give you an idea).
Sometimes, a film has its heart in exactly the right place and even takes many of the right steps in achieving its ambitions, only to fall a bit short. The Squad is such a film: Marquez’s insistence that his film actually be character-based and thematically-driven is laudable, but he struggles with injecting the proceedings with a pulse. Generally speaking, his vision is sound, as the film is appropriately dreary and occasionally peppered with creepy imagery—it’s just that it never accelerates out of second gear. After debuting in the United States at Fantastic Fest 2011, the film has finally hit DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory, who have outfitted their disc with a trailer and a making-of featurette. The presentation is sound, save for an odd glitch that resulted in the sound dropping out for a few seconds early in the film; whether or not this is a mastering issue or a one-off occurrence remains to be seen, but it’s something to note. File this one under a familiar category of ambitious efforts whose concepts are betrayed by lackluster execution—war is hell, but such films are purgatory. Rent it!
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