‘The Invisible Guest’ (‘Contratiempo’): Film Review

Courtesy of Film Factory Entertainment
Mario Casas and Barbara Lennie in 'The Invisible Guest.'
Exciting, but passionless.

Oriol Paulo’s convoluted tale of a successful young businessmen seeking to prove his innocence of murder reaffirms the director’s status as manufacturer of slick, cleverly plotted contempo thrillers.

A car crash on a twisting, lonely back road triggers a pile-up of twisting and turning events in Oriol Paulo’s satisfyingly crafted thriller The Invisible Guest, the follow-up to his acclaimed The Body. Paulo may indeed be incidentally interested in themes such as the shifting truth, justice and the way arrogant, powerful people react to losing control of their lives, but he’s far more interested in keeping the viewer engaged and breathless. This he does very well, indeed. But in this tricksiest of films, psychological depth is as invisible as the titular guest.

That said, offshore business is likely for Guest. It's the kind of stylishly packaged project, designed for global appeal, which could easily stand a remake, and suggests that Paulo, who on this evidence has a formidable command of the dynamics of thriller making, might be positioning himself to follow the likes of Alejandro Amenabar and Juan Antonio Bayona and take a stab at the U.S. market.

Following an apparent blackmail attempt — there’s a lot about Guest that is “apparent” or “seeming” — successful businessman Adrian Doria (Mario Casas, an actor who could have made a successful living as a pretty-boy hunk, but who prefers to take roles — with varying success — which will challenge him as an actor) is found in a locked hotel room with the dead body of his lover, fashion photographer Laura Vidal (Barbara Lennie, doing a modern-day femme fatale to follow her winsome turn in Nelly Regueras' Maria (And the Others)). This very contemporary film has its roots in such classic fare as The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr’s locked-room mystery masterpiece, The Hollow Man.

To help him out, Doria hires the silver-gray haired, renowned witness preparation expert Virginia Goodman (Ana Wagener, a fine actress whose moment finally has come); and their face-to-faces as they circle the truth are among the film’s most memorable. Because a last-minute witness is threatening to show up at the soon-to-start trial with damning new evidence, they have three hours, as Goodman’s stopwatch literally clicks away, to come up with a defense — the Spanish title, meaning setback, translates literally as “against time.” And Goodman actually doesn’t believe a word of Doria’s blackmail story.

An alternative version by Doria slowly emerges. The backroads accident kills a young driver, and Laura panics: They agree that Adrian will get rid of the body while Laura will wait for help, which comes in the form of local man, middle-aged Tomas Garrido (Jose Coronado, who played the lead in The Body), who tows her car back to his family home. At the house, Laura realizes something that will color everything that comes later, while the storytelling shifts up a technical gear, recounting events that took place simultaneously and playing interesting games with point of view.

Events make regular returns to the hotel room where Goodman, whose job is to be suspicious, is testing Adrian to make sure his story will hold up. Every time it does not, she probes him a little more, insisting all the while on the importance of detail, which of course keeps the viewer watching carefully too. Various possible scenarios are presented skillfully — some real, some lies and some imagined.

If both The Body and The Invisible Guest can be criticized, it’s because they both feel a little too chilly, too obvious in their construction, and too keen to excite: A couple of twists fewer would not have hurt and would have left more in reserve for the big finale. Despite its impressive economy — basically, it’s all about four characters — It loses its grip on plausibility over the final half hour, in rapidly unfolding scenes that in retrospect fall apart.

It would be a nice bonus if we could care about the characters with all our attention focused on the events. But we’re not made to care — though the performances, from some of Spain’s strongest talent, are very strong. Lennie, Wagener and Coronado all dominate Casas in their scenes with him.

Viewers who take Goodman’s advice to focus on the details will have figured out the ending after the first half hour, but that will only matter when the final scene arrives and fails to make its impact: Guest's destination may be too clearly signaled, but getting there makes for an exciting ride. All tech aspects are well handled, with Fernando Velazquez’s busy score a highlight and Xavi Gimenez’s camerawork easily transitioning between the film’s twin settings, which boil down to the glossy urban and the wintry rural.

Production companies: Atresmedia Cine, Think Studio, Nostromo Pictures, Colose Producciones, La Habitacion Cerrada
Cast: Mario Casas, Ana Wagener, Jose Coronado, Barbara Lennie
Director, screenwriter: Oriol Paulo
Producers: Eneko Lizarraga, Mercedes Gamero, Mikel Lejarza
Executive producers: Sandra Hermida, Adrian Guerra, Nuria Valls
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Baltasar Gallart
Costume designer: MIguel Cervera
Editor: Jaume Marti
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting director: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment

No rating, 106 minutes