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A young boy escapes from home and into a life-transforming friendship in Out in the Open, a western-thriller hybrid that takes its mythic tone from the primitive grandeur of the arid desert landscapes in which it’s set. After a fine opening half-hour, its spectacular visuals are not matched by its storyline, which becomes increasingly predictable and workmanlike, but the film’s bleak, elemental power and sometimes disturbing portrait of a society ruled by violence ultimately make for a worthwhile journey. Offshore business in non-Spanish-speaking territories is an outside bet for a title that’s being touted in Spain as one of the year’s strongest.
Unlike the best-selling Jesus Carrasco novel on which it’s based, Open is set in a specific time and place — Andalucia in 1946, seven years after the end of the Civil War, when dire poverty was widespread. An unnamed 12-year-old (credited simply as The Kid, played by Jaime Lopez) makes his escape from the remote estate run by a tyrannical (and equally unnamed) overseer (Luis Callejo), who — rather than let the boy go and therefore experience almost certain death — somewhat inexplicably decides to form a team of fellow ne’er-do-wells, including Triana (Vicente Romero), to hunt the kid down and bring him back.
After the kid falls and loses his water flask, he’s found by super-grizzled nomadic shepherd (Luis Tosar), a father figure apparently in search of a son figure. Their dialogue is cowboy-short and their silences are cinematic-long, and beautifully framed. After some cat and mouse in the dusty scenery, the pair are indeed rounded up, and in a lengthy sequence that represents the story’s turning point, the shepherd is subjected to sadistic punishment by Triana. It’s elegantly staged but harrowing to watch, involving as it does the shepherd’s animals being killed one by one.
Tosar, though over-visible in Spanish films, is reliably solid and doesn’t disappoint here in a trademark tough and tender role. (Though some may wonder why the shepherd risks it all to look after the kid, this is one script that’s trading in big statements on justice and violence rather than psychological credibility.) Callejo, one of Spanish cinema’s go-to baddies, is horribly compelling as the lawless overseer, a character completely lacking in redeeming features who’s able to destroy the lives of his impoverished subjects on a whim. But his sidekick Triana is just too similar to the overseer in his all-round nastiness. In his debut, Jaime Lopez does good work, and between them he and Tosar are able to sidestep sentimentality without sacrificing tenderness.
Open, which per its title is indeed shot almost entirely in exteriors, is visually stunning and well-captured by Pau Esteve Birba in sweeping shots that thankfully are largely achieved without drones. Shot in a harsh, arid region of mountains and canyons where the locals quite literally lived in caves, these badlands are very bad indeed and are as much of a threat to the kid’s well-being as his pursuers are. The unforgiving landscape seems to have burned itself into the souls of all who live in it, and it’s moving to watch the shepherd and the kid as they try to eke out a little mutual pity in this pitiless region. The script, too, cleverly integrates the landscape into the story: Water, for example, is often a long journey away, which makes a big difference in how things turn out.
Director Zambrano has never successfully replicated the human insights of his grittily intimate debut, 1999’s rightly revered Alone, and Open doesn’t change that. The reason for the overseer wanting to retrieve the kid is openly revealed only at the end, but viewers will generally have worked it out anyway. What’s more interesting, but goes unexplored, is the emotion underlying this key decision, and some exploration of that issue might have delivered more psychological depth to a film that, for all its sweep and power, is as unsubtle as most of its characters are.
Production companies: Morena Films, Aralan Films, Ukbar Films
Cast: Luis Tosar, Luis Callejo, Jaime Lopez, Vicente Romero, Kandido Uranga, Juanjo Perez Yuste, Adriano Carvalho
Director: Benito Zambrano
Screenwriters: Daniel Remon, Pablo Remon, Benito Zambrano, based on a novel by Jesus Carrasco
Producers: Juan Gordon, Pedro Oriol
Executive producer: Pilar Benito
Director of photography: Pau Esteve Birba
Production designer: Curru Garabal
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Composer: Mikel Salas
Casting director: Mireia Juarez
Sales: Morena Films
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