Fantastic Fest 2011: THE SQUAD Review
The air is thick with tension as a military squad proceeds to the foot of a mountain base, where they're ordered to wait for backup and hold their position. The mountain is shrouded in fog and the men are exhausted. They've been fighting guerrillas on enemy turf for some time, and they're worn down by the stress and anxiety of battle. The men don't want to wait; they want to charge up the hill, fearing that their comrades in the base have been overrun by the guerrillas. The squad's leader tries futilely to keep his men in line while dealing with his insolent second-in-command. Finally one of the soldiers ignores orders, makes a break for it ... and is howling in agony a few moments later.
Thus begins The Squad (AKA El Paramo), directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez, and the cloud of tension enveloping the men remains fully-charged throughout the film's running time. The drama is presented, for the most part, through the eyes of Ponce, a soldier who is attuned to the mud and shit that covers the mountain, the weird little cries that occasionally pierce the quiet of the otherwise peaceful forest terrain, and the increasing hostility that's festering among the squad members.
Private Ponce has a buddy from back home who watches his back. Corporal Cortez is the squad's medic, but, more important to Ponce, he's a calming presence, his best friend, a man who swears that they will get out of this madness alive, come what may. It's scant assurance for Ponce, who looks to be losing his mind from the tension, but it's the only thing he's got. The lieutenant is indecisive, the sergeant is brutish, and the other soldiers are unreliable.
When the squad enters the base, they discover a bloody, bloody mess, clearly the residue of a fiercely-fought battle between government soldiers and rebel guerrillas. But only a few bodies are in evidence, and the guerrillas don't appear to have taken anything. And why are ornaments made of tiny bones hanging from the ceiling? And what's that sound coming from behind the wall?
In his directorial debut, Osorio Marquez fires up a cauldron of masculine anxiety. The men are trained soldiers, but their training is breaking down. What, exactly, have they done before they arrived at the foot of the mountain? Why have their loyalties become divided? We're tossed into the cauldron without knowing how to get out, just like the men, and the temperature is rising, slowly but inexorably.
The performances are very strong and the filmmaking is rock hard, utilizing handheld footage and ground-level perspectives without losing track of the geography. My only complaint is that it took me a while to distinguish the men as individual characters -- what with the uniforms and the foggy, muddy background -- but perhaps that's intentional, to reinforce the notion that a military squad needs to act as one unit to perform at optimum conditions, and when it doesn't, serious trouble is soon to follow.
Some of the intermediary pay-offs are not at the gut-punch level I expected, but, again, I suspect that's by intent as well, and this may be a case where good things come to those who wait. The film is not an action thriller in the traditional style of Hollywood blockbusters. The Squad creates an edgy mood, casts a dramatic spell, and then sits on its haunches, waiting to see who will be the first to buckle under the pressure.