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In Escobar: Paradise Lost, an intense drama that marks the directorial debut of the Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano, The Hunger Games‘ Josh Hutcherson portrays Nick, the character with the most screen time, a young Canadian who meets and marries Maria (Claudia Traisac, now Hutcherson’s real-life girlfriend), a young girl in Colombia, where Nick had gone to surf and live with his brother. But its standout performance — which I’m told will receive a best supporting actor Oscar push from distributor Radius-TWC — comes from Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, who plays Nick’s new uncle, the infamous Colombian drug lord and “King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar.
Escobar — which sneaked at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month and screened at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday night, where I caught up with it — is clearly modeled after The Last King of Scotland (2006), in which a good-natured guy visits a foreign country and develops a relationship with a leader who proves to be more dangerous than he initially realizes, and The Godfather (1972), in which a dangerous leader of a large family shows one side of himself around his loved ones (including at a memorable wedding) and another when conducting business (and making offers that people cannot refuse).
What is interesting from an awards perspective, if not surprising, is the decision to push Del Toro in the supporting actor category. Some people felt The Last King of Scotland‘s Forest Whitaker and The Godfather‘s Marlon Brando belonged in that category, as well, but their performances were so much at the heart of their movies, even if others had greater screen time, that they ended up being pushed in the lead actor category — and each won. But this year’s lead actor category is shaping up to be as jam-packed as it ever has been, and Hutcherson does have a bit more screen time than Del Toro, so Radius-TWC appears to have made a pragmatic decision.
The film itself has some issues — some of its plot developments and chronology are a bit confusing and while Hutcherson is very good some may find him too young for his part — but Del Toro’s performance is not among them. As Escobar — wearing either a mustache (and looking like Saddam Hussein in his heyday) or a scruffy beard (and looking like Hussein when he was pulled out of a hole in the ground) — he is alternately charming and menacing. It’s not the first time that Del Toro’s played a militarized countercultural figure (see Steven Soderbergh‘s 2008 diptych Che: Part One and Che Part Two) or a creepy bad guy (see Oliver Stone‘s 2012 film Savages), but his performance here is still fresh and exciting to watch.
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