Son of Cain: Film Review

Son of Cain film still - H 2013

Son of Cain film still - H 2013

Elegantly-scripted, suspenseful and nicely compact, "Cain" is mostly gripping but a little too calculating for comfort.

A troubled teenager's problems drive the drama in this chess-based thriller from debut director Jesus Monllao.

A well-crafted thriller that explores the troubled triangle formed by a chilling child, a sensitive shrink and a bad daddy, Jesus Monllao’s Son of Cain, like the chess games that drive its twisted little story forward, unfolds with a compelling, cerebral logic. Some will find its calculations and manipulations too obvious, but as a compact and entertaining genre item, the film does its job just fine, flagging up both the director and writers, Sergio Barrejon and David Victori, as talents to watch. Closely based on a novel by Ignacio Garcia-Valino, the film has done solid business at home, with Spain-friendly territories likely to show interest: remake possibilities are not out of the question.

The action opens with a darkly cunning scene whose troubling significance only becomes clear after the film is over. Businessman Carlos Albert (Jose Coronado) and wife Coral (Maria Molins) have two children: one a perfectly sweet little girl, Diana (Helena de la Torre), the other the good-looking but deeply disturbed Nico (David Solans), an ambitious chess player whose disdain for everyone’s opinions but his own put him beyond the social pale.

Carlos finds the family pooch lying dead in one of the beds in their luxury mansion, and the finger of suspicion points at Nico. Shrink Julio (Julio Manrique), himself a chess expert, is brought in, and after a couple of tense face-offs with the boy, Julio decides to help him, introducing Nico to his own chess mentor, Andrew (veteran Jack Taylor), who warns Julio about getting involved. But it’s too late for that: Julio and Coral have started to fall for one another.

In the way it plays into insecurities about parenthood and childhood, the film feels very contemporary. But such issues are never addressed directly and are always subservient to a plotline which, by virtue of intelligent scripting and sharp editing, generally stays one step ahead.

Any film with chess at its heart is asking to be judged on how skillfully it plays its pieces, and in its secondary plot points “Cain” does so very well. This is where most of the interest lies, since sharp-eyed viewers will have figured out after about an hour where the main story is heading. An accomplished final sequence closes things down a little too neatly, but is sufficiently compelling to conceal some plausibility issues.

Making the same connections between chess and psychopathy as Carl Schenkel’s Knight Moves, Cain is more about its plot than its people, with psychological issues dutifully set forth but not explored.

The dependable Coronado, a broodingly powerful screen presence who has trouble doing low key, has featured in some of Spanish cinema’s biggest hits of recent years, including most recently Alex and David Pastor’s The Last Days. But here Coronado is unable to bring much nuance to his role as bad guy millionaire with a nasty violent streak – though the question of just how nasty he is again remains tantalizingly open until the final frames. The same is true of the mostly silent Nico: sometimes he seems a force for evil, sometimes a troubled teen, with Solans’s muted performance skilfully raising both possibilities, sometimes simultaneously.

Jordi Bransuela’s cinematography is bright and clear, with much of the action unfolding in pleasing but non-specific locations: visual interest is only occasional, as when the camera roams around Andrew’s teaching space, which teems with earnest youngsters playing chess. Ethan Lewis Maltby’s orchestral score is functional but unremarkable. For the sake of verisimilitude, dialogue is in both Spanish and Catalan languages, but the doubling of the Catalan into Spanish on some prints is uncharacteristically sloppy for a project, which otherwise pays the right attention to detail.

Venue: Cines Princesa, Madrid, June 4
Production companies: Life & Pictures, Salto de Eje, Fosca Films.
Cast: Jose Coronado, Maria Molins, Julio Manrique, David Solans, Helena De la Torre, Jack Taylor
Director: Jesus Monllao
Screenwriters: Sergio Barrejon, David Victori
Producers: Sebastian Mery
Executive producers: David Ciurana, Miguel Angel Calvo Buttini
Director of photography: Jordi Bransuela
Production designer: Jose Massague
Music: Ethan Lewis Maltby
Costume designers: Ariadna Pons, Cristina Ribo, Nuria Anglada
Editor: Bernat Aragones

No rating, 91 minutes