There’s something immensely satisfying about an effectively mysterious thriller. That satisfying build as the pieces move towards a well-earned moment of clarity. It always makes me think of the sound-effects whirr and click for some reason. It is, like all writing, easier to describe than to do. Actually it’s really bloody hard to do. You have to carefully stride the line between withholding information from the audience and giving them enough to work with to ensure your inevitable third act twist doesn’t feel like unfounded bullshit. You also have to do all this without falling into Bad Blockbuster Syndrome too much. That is to say you have to ensure that not everything is founded on surprise and reveals, you actually have to be able to sustain drama. Which means giving the audience some characterization so the people running around onscreen actually matter. It’s all about making sure people give a shit about your characters. You have to carefully gauge what you actually benefit from withholding backstory, information, and character goals. Especially especially especially when it comes to your main character. If you do this all well?
Well then whirr, click; you’ll have an awesome puzzle-box of a film.
Christopher Nolan does this well. Shane Carruth does this well. David Fincher does this well. Damon Lindelof does not. JJ Abrams does not. Andrew Stanton does not. Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimes — is there any reason it couldn’t have stayed as Cronocrimes? That’s a sick name.) is director Nacho Vigalondo’s attempt at creating a puzzle-box thriller built around time travel. Vigalondo is a Spanish director; this is his first film. He actually plays a pretty important role in the film too. It was written by him and Karra Elejalde. Honestly, in a film like this, the writing is oftentimes more important than anything else. Hell, low budget sci-fi in general is a phenomenally script-dependant sub-genre. The big budget stuff is all spectacle and surface and money-soaked pixels cavorting across the screen. Without that option, cleverness comes to the foreground. You have to present a science-fiction world or premise without massive explosions and aliens and futuristic cities. You have to be smart and come up with a clever, simple visual to build your plot around. Primer-style time travel (you can only travel back in time to the point when the machine was turned on) is a perfect example of a brilliant, inexpensive, sci-fi concept.
Not only does Nacho Vigalondo draw on Primer for influence, he seems to steal from Giallo films as well. Giallo is basically the proto-slasher film genre from Italy. It’s what John Carpenter plundered for inspiration when it came time to make Halloween. The plots almost always revolve around a central “who-the-hell-is-the-killer mystery.” Except the mysteries are almost always unsatisfying nonsense. It’s really about the texture – the filmmaking applied to the murders, the scares, the sets, the random slasher-movie nudity. But they almost always revolve around a mysterious (oftentimes masked) killer. Which the first third of Timecrimes sorta does too. It doesn’t really present the identity of the killer as a mystery (thank Christ for that). And the violence is nowhere near as well presented as good Giallo. But there is still a taste of the genre through the portion of this movie set pre-time-travel.
I was very unconvinced by this portion of Timecrimes. The main character wasn’t that compelling, the violence wasn’t that effective (How do people still think they can get away with generically filmed and edited acts of violence without proper sound?), and holy shit was the “plot twist” easy to see coming. The second I heard about this film, the second I had seen a screen-cap of the villain, I knew what the first reveal was going to be. Without an interesting character, or hints of anything past this first reveal, it felt a little predictable. There was no whirr to Timecrimes, if that makes sense. It wasn’t trying to provide one. It doesn’t offer anything up as a puzzle. But it also never really hints at any plot to come. It’s very immediate. There was no mystery to it, no confusion, no sense of impending pay-off. It was quiet. It felt like it needed to whirr.
If you are even vaguely aware of time-travel tropes — and if you’re reading my articles it’s my prerogative to assume my discerning audience is very familiar with these tropes — this first stretch of the film will be unconvincing. (It breaks into three sections rather easily. Because time travel.) I certainly felt underwhelmed. I wanted this movie to feel smarter than me! Is that too much to ask? I was hoping for something more like The Prestige, but that’s not how Timecrimes works. Ah expectations, you cause nothing but trouble.
The second (I refuse to say “acts” because “three act structure” can crawl into a ditch and die) chunk of time-travel shenanigans is far and away an improvement on the first. It starts to play out almost exactly as you’d expect. And then continues to do so… and then continues… There still wasn’t any whirr, and certainly no sign of that much needed eventual moment of… clicking. Instead there’s a character finally made interesting. By forcing the average and unimpressive main character to take a more active role in the plot, the movie actually gets a lot better. This is obviously not an uncommon idea, but it has become unpopular of late. Which is a shame because hot damn it works. Watching this middle-aged, middle-class, non-confrontational dude force his way through the stressful and dangerous events of the movie is pretty thrilling.
And part-way through this segment? Part-way through, the faint sound of something whirring starts…
It’s not the whirr of plot pieces making sense, or added mysteries, or anything like I was expecting. Instead it’s this weird defeated sense of comedy brought to certain moments. It only makes sense with more context, and I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s the little things that made me chuckle in an “I acknowledge that was clever” kind of a way. Little things like the way a character sits on a step, for instance. Plus part-way through there’s another wrinkle thrown into the plot. It doesn’t half-count as the kind of clever machinations I’ve been referring to. It’s a completely linear plot point – there’s no hint of it before it shows up, it’s not a retread of a previous scene from a different point-of-view, it’s just a new thing that happens to the main character that we get to go along with. It is, however, fucking unexpectedly cruel and clever. It probably shouldn’t be, but it was, and it added a lot to the movie.
It also serves as the catalyst for the third stretch of time-travel buggery. The main character is forced to undergo a pretty heavy transformation, and it’s really satisfying and generally more interesting than most thrillers with Everyman characters manage to be. It helps that it’s dark. Vigalondo really tears his character apart and then assembles the pieces with this grim purpose, all in the course of a few minutes. What’s awesome about all this is the fallibility. The main character was so overwhelmingly average and slightly incompetent before that we know this sudden transformation could end terribly at any moment. This second retread finally gives the film that puzzle-piece sensibility, cleverly and retroactively changing the meaning of scenes we’ve seen in a way the first retread didn’t. It was never quite cleverer than me though.
Let’s talk about this desire for movies that outfox the viewer. Blockbusters do this all too regularly of late. Except that “do” implies a level of success I’m not ready to ascribe them. Blockbusters attempt this all the time of late. Which is Christopher Nolan’s fault. The guy just had to go and release films like Memento, The Prestige, even The Dark Knight to an extent. Not only that, he had to become a critical and commercial darling. This bred a bunch of withholding blockbusters with delusions of intelligence standing in for effective drama. Think of Abrams’s mystery box. Think of the useless halfway reveal of John Carter’s backstory. Think of Oblivion’s hugely boring everything. Big budget movies (especially sci-fi) that set out to feel smart seem doomed to fail. Unless they’re a Nolan project. Nolan clearly understands how these mechanics work in a very specific way. I would guess he could sit down and explain why one thing deserves a reveal and one thing needs to be clear from the get-go without having to think long about it. His is not the work of a man whose creative process is an internalized Stygian-gloom of feelings and vibes and psychoses. Not everyone can be as clinical as your Nolans and Carruths of the world though (and really that’s a good thing).
So when I express disappointment about Timecrimes’s inability to outfox me you have to understand it for what it is. For a lot of us nerdy active-consumer types, it’s pretty rare to be surprised by a film. Not that it never happens or anything, it’s just not that common. Out-of-left-field twists don’t count, by the way, though in truth those are rarely as surprising as intended either. So when a movie comes along that feels like it should be twisty and unexpected I get a little excited. The only thing I’d really read about Timecrimes made comments that furthered this illusion too. In truth, Timecrimes doesn’t fail because of the absent mystery. It is absent, never attempted, an optical illusion of expectations formed by genre conventions.
What makes Timecrimes smart is the fact that Vigalondo just tries to tell a damn story. He doesn’t really attempt to generate any mystery at any point during the film. Shreds of mystery here and there, but mainly we follow the story through in such a linear way, and through such a fixed, unaware, character, that he pretty much swaps out mystery for conventional drama. He trades questions for tension. This is actually a good choice, and might betray a surprising confidence. It bucks trends and expectations in an unanticipated way, though perhaps the director just knew his limitations and chose to keep the story simple. Either way it works.
The fact that it’s a straightforward, almost conventional, thriller actually does Timecrimes a ton of favours. We actually connect with the main character; we care about his transformation (and the movie rewards us by making this pay the hell off). The movie doesn’t disappear inside itself either, which was a definite concern of mine going in. Nothing’s worse than a ragged hole-filled plot that tries to convince you it’s clever. Yes, I am still annoyed at Star Trek: Into Darkness. Forgive me for actually enjoying a simple, well-executed story. Timecrimes is a movie that more or less knows its limitations. It doesn’t attempt any sort of unique science-fiction visuals or show-stopping set pieces, which is good. The time machine looks like a machine, that’s all it needed. The movie is a little overconfident in itself when it comes to acts of violence. Some of them are fine (the roof) but some of them aren’t nearly as impactful as Nacho Vigalondo seems to have intended (everything other than the roof). Actually that’s not entirely fair – the car stuff is pretty good too. But it’s far from great. The filmmaking is never really great, but it’s perfectly effective. Everything is a short step away from being great, which makes the fact that it’s not all the more disappointing. It’s a solid, gripping film that’s teetering on the edge of greatness. It’ll definitely stick around on lists of good science-fiction films. The whole film may never really whirr, but it builds to a delightful click. Which, in the end, is enough.