'Dying Beyond Their Means' ('Murieron por encima de sus posibilidades'): San Sebastian Review

Dying Beyond Their Means Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Dying Beyond Their Means Still - H 2014

Tartly topical satire takes wobbly aim at easy targets 

Goya-winner Raul Arevalo heads a star-studded Spanish cast in Isaki Lacuesta's topical black comedy, premiering out of competition at the long-running festival

Previously known for dourly austere investigations of the artistic temperament, Basque-Catalan writer-director Isaki Lacuesta throws a commendably brave and wildly unexpected career curveball with cockeyed comedy Dying Beyond Their Means (Murieron por encima de sus posibilidades, also known as They Died Beyond Their Means).  Adopting a savagely satirical stance towards the financial crisis that has so crippled Spain — and much of Europe — over the past half-decade, it's a knockabout, wayward concoction whose Alex de la Iglesia-style gory grand guignol moments are more stomach-churning than side-splitting.

And although the cast includes a galaxy of the nation's big-screen stars, several of whom exert a measure of international appeal, the shoestring-budgeted, self-funded effort — which Lacuesta and company shot patchwork-style over a period of two years depending on their actors' availability — has reportedly yet to secure domestic distribution. Undeniably flawed, this is an unambiguously commercial enterprise which deserves a chance of big-screen exposure in its native land, and may appeal to adventurous-minded festivals elsewhere. Further down the line, TV and VOD prospects are reasonably bright thanks to the calibre of the talent involved.

That said, a trailer foregrounding the presence of such notables as Luis Tosar, Alex Brendemuhl, Angela Molina, Sergi Lopez and Jose Sacristan would be misleading indeed, as they're generally restricted to extended-cameo screen-time. Instead, front and center are a mismatched quintet of mental-hospital escapees led by barnstorming Goya-winner Raul Arevalo as a charismatic firebrand desperate to punish those he views as responsible for his and his country's financial misfortunes. His absurd plan involves stealing aboard the implausibly-unguarded, implausibly gigantic luxury yacht belonging to the head of the national bank, and compelling the latter's subordinates to mutilate each other ("we have to make cuts!") or suffer even worse consequences.

After grabbing our attention with this Saw-style opening gambit, Lacuesta then hops back and forth in time to recount how each of the five desperados ended up in the asylum, the 2.35:1 widescreen visuals and jaunty soundtrack adding a spaghetti-western sauce to the recipe. All of the protagonists, we learn, are guilty of at least culpable homicide, and a couple of flat-out murder: one particularly nasty vignette, involving the drowning of a school principal in a toilet, awkwardly betrays Lacuesta's inexperience with this kind of trickily genre-blending fare.

Winner of San Sebastian's top Golden Shell prize in 2011 with The Double Steps, Lacuesta now attempts the kind of mid-career volte-face recently pulled off with such stunning aplomb by Bruno Dumont via Li'l Quinquin. And while he shows much more flair for comedy than any of his previous work (even 2010's very fine, playful Ava Gardner documentary All the Night Long) could possibly have suggested, Dying Beyond Their Means is — perhaps inevitably given its haphazard shooting-schedule — a scattershot, uneven affair juggling too many storylines and too many characters to lock onto its temptingly large, juicy targets. That said, there's considerable remake potential in the basic One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest-cum-Occupy premise. And there's certainly no shortage of countries whose current parlous plight mirrors or even exceeds Spain's, and whose audiences may thrill to see bankers and politicos getting their messily just deserts.

Production companies: Sentido Films, La Termita Films, Versus Entertainment, Alicorn Films
Cast: Raul Arevalo, Julian Villagran, Albert Pla, Ivan Telefunken, Jordi Vilches, Luis Tosar, Carmen Machi,  Imanol Arias, Angela Molina, Sergi Lopez, Jose Sacristan, Emma Suarez, Barbara Lennie
Director: Isaki Lacuesta
Screenwriters: Isaki Lacuesta, Isa Campo
Producers: Rafael Portela, Isa Campo, Isaki Lacuesta, Alejandro Miranda, Marc Cases, Victor Cavaller, Jordi Comellas
Cinematographer: Diego Dussuel, Marc Gomez del Moral
Production designers: Roger Belles, David Fauchs
Costume designers: Xenia Gasull, Alba Costa
Editor: Domi Parra
Composers: Judit Farres, Albert Pla
Sales: La Termita Films, Girona, Spain

No Rating, 102 minutes