There’s a huge amount of potential in the opening scenes of director Ángel González’s Compulsión. An unnamed escort (Susana Abaitua) makes a date with with Robert (Paco Manzanedo), who picks her up in front of her house and drives her to a secluded mansion behind a locked gate. Inside a rundown-looking pool house they flirt before he leaves her to get a drink and in the brief moment she’s left alone, she discovers bloody evidence of a horrific crime. It’s too late. Robert has returned and he’s not about to let her go. Cut to a series of increasingly far removed views of the mansion, which is completely isolated amidst a gorgeous mountainous landscape. Cue title card.

Following the title card, the other unnamed female lead (Marine Esteve) – is introduced. Without pretense, it is clear that she is Robert‘s girlfriend. Their relationship is strained: he’s uptight about his privacy and generally abrasive; she’s needy and prone to violent nightmares about him, primarily because she suspects that he’s having an affair. After overhearing him speaking romantically to someone on the phone and having a more abrupt conversations with Robert, the girlfriend follows him…to the escort’s house and then the mansion in the hills that we saw play out in the pre-title sequence.

 

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At this point, Compulsión is less than a quarter into its runtime and there’s an undeniable sense that anything could happen. González is already playing with non-linear timelines and his shooting style is active and involved; the camera is always moving, nervously jittering about, panning, or ever so slowly pushing in or out on actors’ faces. The constant movement and the very deliberate editing gives the film a palpable, nervous energy that feels exciting.


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It’s not long before the girlfriend is firmly embroiled in the kidnapping plot: she sneaks into the mansion, discovers the escort tied, bloody and gagged, as well as the decomposing body of another victim. Naturally this is when Robert returns with his kill bag, forcing the girlfriend to quickly hide, during which time she badly injures her arm. Now all three leads are confined to a single location, both women are injured and the stakes are escalating.

The speed with which this all comes about is astonishingly brief. Compulsión is a short film (barely 70 minutes), but it moves like a freight train. The first half is incredibly fast paced, ricocheting up the tension as the characters move into place for a dramatic and violent confrontation. Considering how quickly the plot moves, it should come as no surprise that Robert is alerted almost immediately to the girlfriend’s presence. As new set pieces are introduced and the action moves beyond the mansion, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the speed, the condensed timeline of the film the non-linear temporal structure that makes Compulsión so exciting early on requires sacrificing character depth and rising action later.

 

 

 

The longer the film plays, the more routine the thriller aspects become; the screenplay doesn’t allow for time to flesh out the characters or their situation any further. This is evidenced by the body count of random characters who seem introduced solely to die.


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There are some other narrative developments that don’t sit well, though it’s hard to tell if these are deliberate revisionist takes on the kidnapping/thriller formula, culturally-specific to Spanish horror or a combination of both. The unique, very specific decision not to name either heroine is intriguing, as it narratively reduces them to ciphers (brunette escort, blonde girlfriend), though both actresses do such a great job that it’s not difficult to sympathize with either.

Ultimately Compulsión doesn’t quite live up to its initial potential, though the film remains exciting to watch thanks to inspired direction by González and two solid, sympathetic performances by Esteve and Abaitua. The final third of the film would have benefitted from a more sustained cat and mouse games between the three leads, though the final confrontation (involving a highly unorthodox weapon) elicits both a shock and a deep sense of satisfaction.

2 out of 4 eberts

Compulsión is playing this week at Imagine Film Festival. It does not currently have a North American release date.

 

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