The Argentine drama "The Mugger" is a suspenseful slice of cinematic microfiction. Clocking in at less than 70 minutes, the film follows a 60ish man's day of crime in Buenos Aires, using minimal dialogue and strong performances to full impact. The camera so closely shadows the title character on his unlikely rounds that the viewer becomes, in a sense, an accessory to the crime. The feature was a selection of the Festival de Cannes' Critics' Week and is in competition at AFI Fest.
Arturo Goetz ("Family Law") is compelling every step of the way as the man whose real name we learn only in the film's final minutes. His uncertain identity draws in the viewer from the opening scene, when he enters an elementary school in tweed sports coat and tie, with the distinguished air of a well-to-do father but the darting, measuring gaze of an interloper.
Introducing himself as Alejandro Williams, who has come to enroll 5-year-old Junior, he makes quick work of sticking up a friendly administrator, Patricia (Maya Lesca), for the school's cash coffer. Wielding a 9mm revolver that, he likes to point out, is equipped with a silencer, he directs Patricia in a tense performance ("Give me a smile") as they walk the corridors to the strongbox. Director of photography Cobi Migliora's handheld camera makes the edgy escape along with the protagonist, from bus to cab to ATM. He calls his wife; he calls a buddy about a soccer game -- all is genial, calm, perfectly ordinary, except that he's just deposited thousands of dollars into his bank account, money he stole for an unknown reason.
Things start to go wrong when a sullen, distracted cafe waitress (Barbara Lombardo) scalds his hand with hot water. Although he finds a helpful pharmacist who becomes his way station for the day, he gradually loses his composure, with impatience and cruelty rising to the fore. From a smooth businessman he transforms into someone scruffy and wild before recovering a basic sense of decency and compassion.
First-time feature writer-director Pablo Fendrik and Goetz peel away the character's facade layer by layer but never "solve" the mystery of his behavior with simple answers, instead raising provocative questions about middle-class desperation -- or boredom -- and white-collar crime. Shot in a fleet nine days, "Mugger" uses spare dialogue, Buenos Aires locations and Leandro de Loredo's ambient sound design to create a powerful sense of immediacy.