Inhale -- Film Review

A mesmerizing though at times overly intense thriller about illegal organ harvesting.

"Inhale" is a well-written, shrewdly produced thriller, but the audience for the film -- which centers on an anguished father's (brilliantly played by Dermot Mulroney) desperate journey to save his daughter's life -- might be limited by the uncomfortable subject matter of illegal organ harvesting.

Director Baltasar Kormakur, the Icelandic filmmaker behind "101 Reykjavik" and "Jar City," essentially has crossed fiction with documentary filmmaking to expose the worldwide criminal conspiracy to sell organs to medical patients in the West who can afford to pay the price for a lung, kidney or heart. With laws at variance in different countries, some of these dangerous practices aren't even illegal.

"Inhale" is a most visceral movie, and that includes a few unnecessary sequences in which you get close-ups of a dying child, a shattered leg, a wound being sutured and, finally, human lungs about to be extracted from a still-living being.

The thriller certainly works in a dark palette. Cinematographer Ottar Gudnason shoots the film's New Mexico landscapes -- from desert vistas in suburban Santa Fe to crummy, crime-ridden streets masquerading for Ciudad Juarez across the border -- so that most of the color drains away, leaving cool, ominous tones of black and gray. James Newton Howard's music often features a guitar not only to pick up a local flavor but, again, to establish a mood that is dark with foreboding.

Enormous pressure is bearing down on Santa Fe D.A. Paul Stanton (Mulroney). He is going to court with a case hugely unpopular with the city's Latino community -- always bad for someone who might one day run for elected office, as his friend, gubernatorial candidate James Harrison (Sam Shepard), is quick to point out. Meanwhile, he and his wife, Diane (Diane Kruger), are running out of time in their search for a lung donor for their daughter, Chloe (Mia Stallard).

The screenplay by Walter Doty and John Clafin from a story by Christian Escario keeps twisting the vise that grips these three lives tighter and tighter as the story progresses. When Paul learns he might be able to save his daughter with an illegal transplant in Juarez, he risks his life to plunge deeply into one of the world's most notorious, crime-infested cities. Life is cheap here, but the organs of life come at a dear price.

The scenes in Juarez, where the ante gets upped seemingly by the minute, have a nearly unbearable intensity. As Chloe's situation takes a turn for the worse, Paul meets people who are potentially life savers as well as monsters. A mythical Dr. Novarro might not exist or he might be a police chief named Aguilar (Jordi Molla) or compassionate ER doctor Martinez (Vincent Perez).

There also are street gangs in two different age brackets -- street kids led by one (Kristyan Ferrer) who carries firearms and finds crafty ways to get money out of the gringo stranger and older, homicidal gangsters more than willing to beat anyone to death.

The final act hits like a gut-punch. Worst fears are confirmed, and the protagonist faces a moral dilemma no father should have to confront. Kormakur and his writers give their protagonist no easy way out. In this compact 83-minute movie, they more than make their case about the illegal sales of human organs within the genre confines of a tightly wound thriller.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 22 (IFC)

Production: 26 Films/BlueEyes Films
Cast: Dermot Mulroney, Diane Kruger, Sam Shepard, Vincent Perez, Rosanna Arquette, Jordi Molla, David Shelby
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Screenwriters: Walter Doty, John Clafin
Story by: Christian Escario
Producers: Michelle Chydzik Sowa, Nathalie Marciano, Jennifer Kelly
Director of photography: Ottar Gudnason
Production designer: Monte Hallis
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Katie Saunders
Editor: Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
No rating, 83 minutes