Written and directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
“Your gift I discovered, and your gift I take away.”
It’s the Late Reviewer’s first foray into foreign-language films, all the way from sunny Spain. Well, the film is. The disc is from the UK, and if you were hoping for extra features, you’re out of luck – nothing but a trailer, and one that does the film a massive disservice, in my opinion – see for yourself below.
Why Did I Buy This?
The idea that you could buy, sell or steal luck is a fascinating concept and the imagery of a blindfolded man racing through a forest with his arms tied behind his back is a truly arresting one. I’m pretty sure I read a short review of it in Empire back in the day, but that’s as much as I recall – I certainly didn’t remember Max Von Sydow was in it until I picked up the case and saw him pointing a revolver on the back cover.
I know I’ve seen Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, but don’t recall that much about that either, and the disc is marketed as being from the producers of The Others and Open Your Eyes (later remade as Vanilla Sky) – I watched all of those back in the early 2000s, but this disc has never made it as far as my player.
Let’s see how it goes, then…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will cover the film from start to finish in depth, so it’s pretty long, and you can expect spoilers below – scroll straight to the next heading to avoid them!
We open at night in the Spanish desert, but it could just as easily be a lunar landscape, save for the twinkling lights of a casino in the distance.
In the casino, a fella who looks like a Spanish Telly Savalas is winning big on roulette so pit bosses radio for someone who’s having a swim to come up and do something as Kojak’s numbers keep coming up – initially, I assumed this was the casino owner, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The man is Federico (Eusebio Poncela), and he walks over and touched El Tel on the hand, greeting him like a friend then apologising for the mistaken identity. By touching his hand, we realise, he’s essentially sapped the guy’s luck, and Federico heads over to play a slot machine and wins big, watching as the next spin of the wheel sees the guy lose a fortune.
Federico and a guy who looks like a Latino Luke Wilson visit a concrete bunker deep below the casino, where a man wearing a white suit and roll neck sits in a comfy chair (which faces a similar, empty one), with a black bag over his head, shaking. As Latino Luke places a briefcase on a desk next to the wall opposite the man, he notices a bloody bullet hole in the wall.
This is our introduction to Max Von Sydow’s casino owner Samuel, and quite the intro it is too, as he and Federico discuss their long and complicated relationship.
Turns out Samuel found Federico in the ruins of an earthquake, where his luck – or ability to sap it from others for his own use – had kept him alive, and raised him, taught him how to use his gift. Samuel might be dying, it’s unclear, though what is clear is that Federico wants nothing more to do with the grift at the casino.
It’s not exactly strange, but this whole exchange plays out in two languages – Von Sydow and Poncela switch between English and Spanish. Not a clue why, but it’s noticeable and feels pretty fitting for the odd world we’re experiencing.
As Federico packs in his room, Samuel opens the briefcase to reveal a bunch of Polaroids of people, which he files in an already-stuffed cabinet – more on that later.
Federico’s leaving, but as he gets into the lift, Samuel confronts him, hugs him, and says: “Your gift I discovered, and your gift I take away.” He leaves Federico distraught in the elevator, deprived of any luck he’d built up, then he’s driven away by a pair of Samuel’s goons who – knowing they can touch him without fear of losing their luck – proceed to beat the shit out of him, then throw him into the roadside and drive off.
As we’re given a shot of a number tattooed on Samuel’s wrist indicating he survived a concentration camp, Federico stares at the stars, and a caption reads “Seven Years Later”, and suddenly we’re on another, bloodied face looking up at the stars and a helicopter.
He appears to be injured and in the wreckage of an explosion. He’s taken to hospital where doctors tell us he’s called Tomas Sans (a name to me which sounds to me like a font), and discover a Polaroid of him with a woman in his belongings and a huge amount of cash taped around his body.
Now, I’ll be honest – this time jump and character introduction threw me – for a couple of minutes I thought we were still on Federico, just travelling under an assumed identity.
We’re not, I’m just an idiot.
In the hospital, Tomas (Leonardo Sbaraglia), wakes up as a woman pulls a gun on him – she’s police, he’s quickly detained by two uniformed officers, and we’re out of there before we can really know what’s going on.
This could take some keeping up with, as now it’s night time and we’re following Federico as he gives money to a new character – Horacio – who is boasting about how lucky he was to break up with his partner and find a huge cheque.
Federico gives him a bunch of cash and says he’ll get the rest on the other side… he’s wearing black, and about to try to run across a four-lane motorway in the dark while wearing a blindfold! This is a sort of test to see how lucky he is, and is tense as hell. Horacio makes it across the first three lanes, but is killed by a vehicle on the fourth as Federico videos from the roadside.
Back at his flat, Federico is phoned by a woman named Claudia offering him “fresh meat”, after a plane crash left one survivor – ah, see, suddenly it ties together!
Turns out Federico works for an insurance company, so visits Tomas in hospital with a cheque but says he’ll still go to prison for the theft of the cash cops found on him.
However, he says there was a 1 in 237,000,000 chance of him surviving the crash and if he agrees to play for him, Federico will keep Tomas out of jail… doesn’t specify what he’ll be playing, mind. If Horacio’s fate is anything to go by, I’m guessing it’s not Kerplunk.
The female cop – Sara – is lying in bed reading Tomas’ file and revealed to have a large scar on her chest and a fancy painting of an explosion in the sky on her wall. Meanwhile, Federico steps over two cop’s sleeping outside Tomas’ hospital room, and walks right out the door with him!
In the car, he tells Tomas they’ll use his insurance money for the first stake, then play with the winnings going forward with a 50/50 split.
TOMAS: “What if I lose?”
FEDERICO: “That won’t happen.
TOMAS: “But what if it happens?”
FEDERICO: “You’re free to walk away.”
… just like the last guy walked away from the car crash, eh Federico?
So the pair visit a grubby looking casino in some nondescript city, and when security ask for ID, Federico gives them a VHS (remember them?!), of a CNN news clip covering the plane crash, which reveals Tomas is not only the sole survivor but also accused of bank robbery – that explains the bundles of cash and the police presence.
They’re led underground to a bare, concrete room, where the security guy pastes molasses onto Tomas’ hair for reasons that aren’t made clear, then shown into another dingy room where a trio of gamblers sit waiting to play. When they realise Tomas is with Federico, they won’t play for money, but for his finger – clearly, Federico’s reputation precedes him!
Federico panics but Tomas talks him round by offering up one of his fingers too and assuring him they won’t lose, then the gamblers are blindfolded, the lights go out, and a huge insect starts fluttering around in the near-dark before settling on Tomas’ head – THAT was the game?!
That was the game.
With that, our heroes have won a sports car, a house and a horse – not a bad result for five minutes’ work having stuff smeared in your hair to attract an enormous mantis.
After the game, Federico phones Samuel and asks if he’s still playing before reassuring him he won’t die of old age. It’s clearly a challenge, almost a threat, but there’s the ghost of a smile on Max Von Sydow’s face as he hears the voice of his old friend and considers the possibilities. Man, he was good.
As the lads drive their new car to the house they won, the cop discovers the officers who were asleep outside Tomas’ room had been drugged. Meanwhile, Tomas phones his girlfriend from a payphone near the house – which appears to belong to a bullfighter, judging by the cape and artwork on display – and says he’s glad she wasn’t on the plane as she smiles but looks worried as there’s a police officer in the room with her, and he’s tracing the call.
Some lovely shots here of the men sleeping as the darkness is pierced by approaching, silent flashing red lights of police cars, followed by a silent but exciting escape from the house and its grounds during which Tomas breaks one of Federico’s two rules (he mustn’t touch him, and he mustn’t take a photo of him), to help him over a fence.
Got to wonder whether that’ll be a plot point later…
The pair phone the matador – or Alejandro, to his friends and fellow luck gamblers – and we’re shown some footage of a bullfighter getting twatted about by an angry bull, then hands smashing a cellar window. Alejandro’s laughing it up with police when Sara arrives, and he assures them it was a simple break-in, nothing more serious. Sara’s not convinced though, and finds a tiny splinter of glass in her hand after Alejandro shakes it so goes to arrest him.
Alejandro tells Sara he knows all about her background – turns out her husband and daughter both died while she saved herself in an incident we’re not privy to yet – and he offers to take her to Tomas if she lets him off.
They go back to her place and Alejandro tells her about Max Von Sydow’s character, and how by touching you he can steal your luck, and Sara daydreams about touching her daughter and husband as their car crash – suddenly she feels even more responsible for their deaths and the weight of survivor’s guilt is clear on her face.
She uses her insurance payout document from surviving the car crash and her painting as ID and a stake to gain entry to a low-level game at a dingy hotel, and they’re told to pick a ‘captive’, as are two other gamblers – there are four people behind a glass screen who each look relatively respectable but desperate for money. The gamblers are told to step outside and blindfold themselves and assured that the winners take home the wagers and the captives, and as they step into a courtyard behind the building, Sara sees a shooting star – lucky, eh?
She knows she’s out of her depth and this whole sequence feels really unnerving – as if we know this whole situation is wrong, but it’s impossible to pinpoint why, as we don’t know what’s going to happen.
As everyone’s putting on their blindfolds, Federico and Tomas arrive late, choose the last remaining captive and join the others in the courtyard as the captives face them. Then, they’re each given the opportunity to touch their captive – thus stealing their luck – then asked to roll a pair of dice. Tomas hugs and kisses his captive and rolls a 10, then Sara hugs her captive. She begins to kiss him passionately as she relives the car crash again.
A quick side note – the crash itself is filmed from within the car, but it looks like the filmmakers spent a lot of money on it, as it spins and rolls, tossing the occupants around. All that for probably five seconds of screen time, but it really makes an impact.
Sara freaks out as she relives the crash, pulls off her blindfold and sees Tomas, pulling a gun on him but before she can arrest him, the guy running the game – who looks like a bearded Toby Jones – clonks her on the head and knocks her out, stating: “This game’s invalidated.”
It’s not much of a catchphrase, but the stories this character must have would definitely be worth filling out in a series.
While she’s down and after everyone has scarpered, Alejandro kicks Sara, tells her she’s fucked him over, then rips open her blouse to expose her scar and her breasts and tells her she doesn’t deserve her gift. Alejandro, we now know, is a bit of a prick.
Everything that gets wagered in this world is represented by a Polaroid of the item – the horse, house, car, fingers, etc. It turns out, we’re told by Federico, the photos taken of the captives prior to the game represent their luck, and some sickos lay their good fortune as bets. Tomas isn’t happy about this, and we realise now that’s why Samuel has a filing cabinet chock-a-block with Polaroids way back at the beginning of the film – you don’t get to be the luckiest man in the world just with your own good fortune.
Speaking of Samuel, we get a nice few shots of him walking around his casino – he and it look gloomy, despite the flashing lights, and the shots are intercut with Federico stealing the Polaroid of Tomas and his girlfriend… remember, the one who luckily missed the flight that crashed?
Back at her office, Sara is reading the file of Horacio – remember him? The guy who died testing his luck on the highway earlier! She’s looking at his belongings and recognises the scarf he wore around his eyes as the same sort she wore during the game, and suddenly, everything’s linked.
Meanwhile, the lads have driven to a forest where there’s a scarf tied around a tree. Without Tomas noticing, Federico cuts his girlfriend out of the Polaroid and places her with the pictures of the other captives and hands them over as a wager for the sequence that, frankly, is the reason I bought this movie in the first place.
The players have their hands bound behind their backs and blindfolds over their eyes, and race through the forest at full pelt. It’s impossible to look away, but really hard to watch, as one by one they slam nose-first into trees. There’s a genuine sense of danger, and the sound design when they hit trees – which they do often – is painful. Some simply disappear after hitting or stumbling into something and the camera continues to glide by without them, which is almost as disconcerting.
But wait… Tomas has run into a tree, and Alejandro is the winner! As Tomas rolls around, bloodied and broken, Federico is fuming and drives off without him, leaving Tomas to cadge a lift with Alejandro and Latino Luke Wilson.
See, the winner of this game gets to go to Ucanca – Max Von Sydow’s casino, where they’ll face the luckiest man on Earth in a unique game of Russian Roulette. Some prize, right?
In the back of the car, Tomas looks at the photos Alejandro has won, and sees the picture of his girlfriend – she’s called Ana. He kicks off, and is kicked out and left at the side of the road.
Alejandro gets to the casino and changes into the same outfit we’ve seen Samuel in throughout the film, then waits nervously for what might be his final game.
Meanwhile, we cut to Ana in her apartment. She’s going to bed, smiling.
Back to Alejandro sitting in the bunker beneath the casino, opposite a hooded Samuel, inspecting a revolver.
There are five bullets, and one empty chamber. These aren’t your standard Deer Hunter rules.
Alejandro takes a step towards Samuel, who rises to meet him.
He raises the gun to Samuel’s head.
Pulls the trigger.
Cut to the police officer we saw listening to Ana’s call earlier – he’s cleaning his weapon in her living room.
A round jams in the slide.
Back to the bunker and Samuel removes his hood, spins the revolver’s cylinder, aims at Alejandro…
… the cop tries to clear the jam…
… Samuel pulls the trigger…
We see the cop’s gun go off accidentally, firing right through the bedroom door and into Ana’s back as she sleeps, while Alejandro’s body is being rolled up into a sheet of plastic and Samuel stuffs more Polaroids into his filing cabinet.
Seriously, that whole sequence is utterly thrilling and brilliantly executed (no pun intended).
Getting our breath back then, we see Sara visiting Ana in hospital asking her to help find Tomas. Ana explains Tomas stopped her from getting on the plane by telling her he didn’t love her and in doing so, saved her life.
So, I guess he’s alright, for a bank robber, eh?
Sara discovers Horacio was covered by the same insurance company as Tomas, the one Federico works for, so visits Claudia (remember her?!), to find out where he is.
Federico, it turns out, has nipped back to the office to shred Tomas’ cheque and documents, but wait – Tomas is here, kidnaps him and kicks the shit out of him before asking how he can help Ana, freeing her from being forever tied to Samuel.
While they’re arguing, Federico calls Samuel “the fucking king of fate”, which to be honest, is pretty incredible nickname.
Federico and Tomas fly to Samuel’s casino – Tomas notices he’s in seat 13 and laughs, and Sara gets a tip-off that they’re heading to Ucanca. I’ll be honest, it’s unclear to me who the warning is from, but it works, and Sara’s pretty interested.
Back at the casino, Federico meets Samuel in the desert, and the older man asks him: “Why are you bringing me a loser?”
When Samuel realises Federico wagered Ana’s picture without Tomas’ knowledge, he understands the reason behind their visit.
SAMUEL: “Nobody’s ever come here out of love. Your boy deserves to play.”
Tomas gets dressed in the requisite white polo neck and suit and sits in the desert for a chat with Samuel.
Speaking English – the whole Spanish/English switch is never explained, but sort of adds to the whole otherwordliness of the film – Samuel tells Tomas about his childhood in a concentration camp. It’s a superbly powerful story about how he effectively survived using up the luck of his family and best friend, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. Max Von Sydow is outstanding here, and whatever you think of the film, this scene is head and shoulders above the rest of it.
Back to the bunker, Samuel folds up a photo of his childhood friend’s sister and the men prepare for the game, meanwhile Sara is walking through the casino and heading to the basement. She radios her colleagues and draws a gun, but her radio doesn’t work.
In the bunker, we discover that while Tomas is playing for Ana, Samuel is playing for Federico.
As he’s told to leave the room, Federico tells Tomas: “Have faith. Remember that you came out intact.”
Don’t you just love it when they say the title of the film in the film?!
Meanwhile, Sara’s wandering around with her weapon drawn in the dark, concrete labyrinth under the casino trying to find Tomas – she’s great at looking nervous but tough, and to be honest, she feels sort of out of place, as if she’s in a different movie. The whole buildup to the Russian Roulette is tense enough – having a lone female wandering around in the dark is just a hat on a hat.
Tomas aims the revolver at Samuel and pulls the trigger…
Looking almost disappointed that the gun didn’t fire, Samuel takes the weapon from Tomas and spins the cylinder.
He lifts the weapon and aims it at Tomas…
… when Sara bursts into the room!
Samuel pauses… adjusts his aim to point the weapon at Sara, and pulls the trigger…
Samuel smiles, Latino Luke Wilson pulls his weapon and the lights go out and everyone starts firing in the dark.
Federico returns to the sound of gunfire to find Tomas sitting with his head in his hands and everyone else is dead or dying. He’s distraught to see Samuel, dead with his eyes open and the wartime photo in his hand.
Sara tells Tomas: “I don’t love you any more.” She’s echoing Ana’s words to him, and imagining what she could have told her husband prior to the crash, and dies after holding onto Tomas for a moment.
Federico won’t leave with Tomas. Instead, he sits in one of the players’ chairs, lights a cigarette and looks at Samuel’s body as he listens to Sara’s backup arrive.
Tomas makes his way out into the desert, running into the wasteland away from the casino. He stops for a moment and burns Ana’s photo so her fate is no longer tied to his, then – still wearing his full white suit and polo neck – just keeps running as the credits roll.
Thoughts On The Film
What a concept. Such an amazing idea executed so well, with terrific performances by the whole cast and a great look and feel to the world. You believe these groups could exist in their seedy little casinos and hotels, and even the glitziest locations feel grubby and tarnished. Everything’s tinged with bleakness, even the stunning sunlit desert.
Personally, I felt Monica Lopez’s gutsy female cop trying to bring down the racket was probably the least necessary character in the flick, and while her presence in the final scenes helped bring the story to a close, it just felt like her storyline was from an earlier draft or another film. That being said, the fact she didn’t exactly save the day and walk off into the sunset felt like it belonged, so maybe I need to watch it again without taking notes.
Clearly, Max Von Sydow is the big name in the cast, the one that brought in the production money, but he brings such a performance to the role, there’s no suggestion he’s slumming it. His is a character who appears exhausted with life, but does not wish to die. Tired of playing, but unable to stop the game, and the scene in the desert as he explains his childhood in a concentration camp and the loss of his friend is utterly heartbreaking.
I’m amazed but delighted Intacto hasn’t been remade for US audiences, as I fear it’d tread similar lines to Rain Man or something, or they’d be called Luck Vampires and it’d play out like a Highlander knock-off.
As the days have passed since watching it, I’ve found myself unable to shake little images and ideas from it.
Highly recommended, glad to have finally watched this one.