Friday, June 18, 2010

The Aura

How do you make someone interested in what happens next? That's the basic question behind pretty much any film, but is especially vexing if it's a thriller or a mystery. Everything depends on audience curiosity, and if that disappears your film no longer works. With The Aura, the solution is to keep everything slightly off, and just keep the audience that little bit off balance. The Argentinian thriller maintains a slow pace by ensuring that you simply must know what happens next.

That is apparent right from the first shot, where we are introduced to our protagonist - a mild mannered taxidermist played by Ricardo Darín - on the floor, passed out. We are never given an indication why, though an answer arrives later once it no longer needs to be mysterious, and we're simply introduced to this man who is on the floor, obsessed with the perfect crime, and makes his living stuffing animals. He is a mystery from the first shot, and even as we learn more about him he is always slightly beguiling.

The story, centered around the taxidermist, involves a hunting trip he takes with a colleague. The colleague goes home, our taxidermist sticks around, and stumbled upon what he believes is the perfect crime after accidentally killing a guy. Things evolve as he bluffs his way through the details to get in charge, and to say much more would spoil the endlessly complex and clever payoff. Let's just say it ends well, in a rather meaningful manner.

This is the second film from director Fabián Bielinsky, but it's also unfortunately the last film, as he died young. His first feature, Nine Queens, I also saw, and it had promise but was endlessly gimmicky and was a bit in love with how clever it was. This manages to reach a balance that the previous film never did. It's still extremely clever, hiding important details in plain sight and having events interact in unexpected and fairly brilliant ways. However, it's also smart enough that hides the clever script behind it, never quite calling attention to the often brilliant plotting. It knows how to keep you intrigued, and it's the same reason the taxidermist can get away with becoming a master thief, it lets you know just enough to satisfy your initial curiosity and hides the rest.

It's also beautifully shot, and the choice of shot is as clever as the script itself. We are always well aware of the taxidermist, where he is, and what he sees in any moment. We know only what he knows, which in the grander scheme of things makes the plot that much more compelling. We're not in his head really, except for some rare moments, but it's more that we're a third person in the party, which for some reason is always following him along. It's an effective tactic, and it plays out in unexpected ways, including a shootout that takes place completely off camera. This does leave one or two unanswered questions, but it also keeps everything compelling. Restricting information is much more effective overall than sharing it. True, we never quite get inside the heads of anyone, but maybe we don't have to, it's what happens next that is the real prize.

There are many thrillers that explain away their premise or dispel the fog that surrounds them, and they're all the weaker for it. Here's one that lets you know only as much as you need to follow one part of the plot, and lays the rest of the pieces out around so you can learn the rest. It's possible to put the puzzles together, but even if you do, the slightly off kilter mood keeps you wondering just exactly how it all plays out. It's a shame Bielinsky died before he got the chance to make a follow up, this guy had real talent.

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