Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear starts off pretty humbly, setting the stage and slowly introducing the characters in a small town in the middle of nowhere in South America. Everybody needs work but nobody's hiring, except for the American oil company nearby, but the work is hard and the pay is bad. People end up getting stuck there with no way to leave, either because they don't have the right paperwork, they can't afford it, or both. An opportunity arises though, when an accident causes one of the oil company's fields to burst into flames, and to extinguish it they hire four of the locals to transport two trucks full of nitroglycerin to the site. After an extended opening, the protagonists set off on the mission and the film transforms into one of the most intriguing and tense thrillers I have ever seen. Also, two of them are named Mario and Luigi which is somewhat interesting.

The going is pretty slow, which is understandable considering the volatile nature of the cargo they're hauling. Any errant bump could set off a massive explosion, and the film does a great job of establishing the stakes and danger early on, letting the troubles they come across be the focus with the knowledge of what failure means always in the back of the viewer's mind. You might not expect a movie about driving trucks slowly over unpaved roads to be more exciting and suspenseful than most action movies ever made, but it can be if you let it. The danger is all the more palpable because they do such a good job of establishing the men, both in what they're good at and who they are as people. There are lots of unexpected obstacles along the way, and the heroes' solutions for overcoming them are unique and clever in their conception and memorable in their execution.

The movie is two and a half hours long, and I could see how it might end up boring for someone who really doesn't care about the details of this sort of dangerous work. But it really is just a brilliant piece of work from beginning to end, weaving together all the different languages and backgrounds of the characters and putting them in perilous situations while you dare to hope they'll make it past this one too. You might have a guess about whether things ends up going well for everybody, but even if you have an idea of what happens you might still be surprised by the particulars. I was a bit put off by the ending at first, but looking back it kind of makes a lot of sense. It's a suitable conclusion to a pretty grim and unflinching story.

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