‘The Night Guard’ (‘El Vigilante’): Film Review

THE NIGHT GUARD - Still - H - 2016
Courtesy Avanti Producciones
Black comedy meets urban horror.

Diego Ros’ debut took best Mexican film and best actor honors at the recent Morelia festival.

A single night in the life of a security guard on a mountainside construction site becomes a dark night of the soul for its hapless hero in The Night Guard, the striking helming debut from former film editor Diego Ros. Combining a nicely impassive, almost at-times comic performance from Leonardo Alonso as the titular hero — a good man in a bad, bad world — with thriller elements and a constant, air of quiet menace, Night Guard is a wonderfully atmospheric, slightly off-kilter piece through which evil gently and troublingly pulsates, as well as being a solid calling card from a first-time director whose next move will be watched with interest.

A smartly conceived and executed pre-credits sequence shot in an underground station neatly indicates from the outset that security guard Salvador (Leonardo Alonso) is a man swimming against the tide of society: He’s a good guy in a bad world. No sooner has he arrived for his night shift on a construction site overlooking the city — a city that lenser Galo Olivares’ photography will render powerfully, with some rangy nocturnal nightscapes — than Salvador is being informed that a dead child has been found in a parked van a little way down the road and asked for a statement on anything he’s witnessed.

But Salvador's witness statement contradicts that of his baby-faced, shifty co-worker Hugo (Ari Gallegos), as noted by a heavy-lidded, mustachioed and even shiftier cop Serrano (Hector Holten). Meanwhile, as Salvador keeps answering the phone to tell his girlfriend that he’ll be leaving in a minute, some valuable copper rings have gone missing from the site. In other words, in a single night, quite a lot of the nastiness of the city seems to have made its way up into this remote location in the form of not only theft and child murder, but also, later, in the form of prostitution and gunfights. The only obvious plausibility flaw comes in the form of a stray bullet that happens to kill a girl whom Hugo has smuggled in, and who may or may not be his niece.

These surreal goings-on are handled in an appealingly downbeat way by Ros, who manages to straddle a fine line between thriller and dark comedy — though there’s little in the film qt which to laugh. The script and direction cleverly provide the constant sense that the full horror of urban life is pressing at the doors of the construction site, and that Salvador’s real job is not just to protect the site, but to prevent the horror from getting inside him. Ultimately, he cannot do so: The tough challenge of maintaining his moral integrity will become too much, and he’s obliged to shed his hat and jacket, the badges of his decency.

Ros’ style is simple and unfussy with few visual flourishes, but the pacing is sometimes suspect. Though there’s much black comedy to enjoy in the dialogues between Salvador, Hugo and Serrano, they are sometimes so slow as to be stretched right to the breaking point, while sequences in which Salvador has to return to fetch his jacket likewise feel as though they could have been sharpened up.

Olivares is obviously under instructions to make the most of a splendid location and terrific, spooky interiors, and jumps at the chance to hike up the contrasts between illuminated, silent expanses and murky, dark corners. Supplementary soundwork also is up to the mark. Just a tiny little bit of piano at the end is practically the only score, a minimalism in accord with the film’s generally stripped-back feel.

Production companies: Avanti Producciones, Vigilante Cine
Cast: Leonardo Alonso, Ari Gallegos, Hector Holten, Lilia Mendoza
Director-screenwriter-editor: Diego Ros
Producers: Diego Ros, Yossy Zagha, Jack Zagha, Laura Pino
Director of photography: Galo Olivares
Production designer: Federico Cantu
Costume designer: Maria Guadalupe Perez
Composer: Diego Aguirre
Sales: Avanti Producciones

Not rated, 78 minutes