After unexpectedly venturing into sci-fi monster territory with 2016’s The Untamed, Mexican director Amat Escalante is back on more familiar ground with his latest, Lost in the Night (2023), showing in the Cannes Premiere strand of the festival.
Emiliano’s mother has gone missing. A local activist fighting off a mining business causing environmental damage in the area, she is run off the road one evening on the way home from an event, is then beaten and abducted by corrupt police officers, never to be seen alive again. Three years have passed and Emiliano (Juan Daniel García) and his sister have heard zilch. Believing a local celebrity family – a controversial artist (Fernando Bonilla) and his pop star wife (Barbara Mori) – with ties to the mine had something to do with it, he insinuates himself into their lives.
Escalante’s films bristle with tension you could cut with a knife. He is a master of – or is that a magician at? – crafting/conjuring unease and foreboding. Nothing necessarily even has to happen for this atmosphere of expected violence to pervade entire scenes. It’s there like the mountains, like the open fields, a brooding horror accepted as part of the natural order of life in modern-day Mexico.
A story like this should typically end with a bloody climax, with Emiliano having his day of justice, but Escalante isn’t interested in delivering crowd-pleasing class warfare. Instead, his story brings out unexpected nuances, twists in direction and intriguing plot developments, where the bourgeoisie, who usually act with self-interest and self-preservation, commit to unexpected acts of morality; ones which complicate the demands of the traditional revenger yarn, and beautifully so. Also, in allowing the audience to be several steps ahead of the main character, Escalante’s film delivers classical suspense even as he’s side-stepping more obvious beats.
Since his debut, Sangre (2005), Escalante has been fascinated by the lives of the rural poor, as well as the stark divides in economic circumstances and the plague of the drug traffickers who have turned parts of his homeland into a waking nightmare. Emiliano, like other Escalante protagonists, is a mostly silent type compelled into action by circumstances he did not create but which he must react to as a man, as a son, as a brother. What the future holds, how the narrative will unfold, it is entirely out of his hands, cleverly mirroring his impoverished circumstances. Fatalistic? Perhaps. But also searingly honest and truthful.
Lost in the Night is stylish, brutal, confronting, as Escalante’s work usually is, but now there’s a playfulness present regarding an approach to genre cinema and our subsequent expectations, and he clearly delights in upending them.
Still: Pimienta Films