On the surface, the Spanish film Marshland, by director/co-writer Alberto Rodríguez, is a mere procedural. A gripping one, complete with a thrilling third act car chase and a compelling whodunit at its heart, and ornamented by gorgeous cinematography from Alex Catalán, but a buddy cop procedural nonetheless. Just underneath this captivating veneer, though, is a haunting tale about violence’s lack of transience, and one which situates it within the aftermath of political upheaval.
Not that any of this overshadows the mystery. Marshland begins in 1980, just after the the fall of the Franco dictatorship, with the mysterious disappearance of two teenage sisters in the titular countryside of Spain. Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are the detectives assigned to the case, and their search soon turns up the girls—albeit dead, mutilated, and with evidence of having been raped. As they soon discover, the sisters aren’t the only victims, as several other teenage girls have also vanished from the town with little or no trace.
Despite the lack of evidence, the town itself holds its share of potential leads and disturbing elements in need of explanation. There’s Quini (Jesús Castro), a dark-haired and aggressive twenty-something whose good looks don’t keep him from being into girls much younger than him (including one who’s the age of one of the dead sisters). He’s matched in shadiness by the dead girls’ heroin stealing father, whose debt to drug dealers certainly doesn’t endear him to anyone. And then there’s the mysterious fish gutting woman, whose creepy appearance and ominous words suggest she knows more than she lets on. These characters give Marshland a bit of a Twin Peaks-like vibe, in that the dark underbelly of an ostensibly pleasant environment becomes clearer and clearer the deeper the cops take their investigation.
And as with Twin Peaks, the investigation also forces the cops to probe deeper and deeper within themselves. The mild-mannered Pedro is just as timid as the aggressive Juan is vicious, and the latter seems unconcerned with roughing up both potential suspects and innocent witnesses. The contrast between the two highlights the unforgivable nature of Juan’s actions, regardless of who they’re supposed to serve. On top of the comparison with Pedro’s passivity, Rodríguez rubs the violence in the viewer’s face, forcing confrontation with the brutality on display.
It’s this aspect of Marshland which makes for its most fascinating angle. While it’s certainly an efficient thriller, the film also exploits its setting by making Juan formerly allied with Franco, giving his violent actions another dimension. Not only is the violence disturbing in its own right, but it’s implicitly associated with the totalitarian Franco regime, making the aggression all the more disturbing. Juan’s past weighs over everything he does, just as the final remnants of Franco refuse to fade entirely out of Spanish memory. Marshland doesn’t treat this theme too explicitly for most of the film’s running time, as Rodríguez keeps it a procedural first and foremost. Still, it’s in the subtext of just about everything Juan and Pedro do, preventing the message from being too obvious while simultaneously making it an undeniable presence. Franco haunts Spanish history, particularly in the early 80s, and Spanish history is just as much a part of Marshland as the captivating search for a killer.
The historical context keeps the duality between Juan and Pedro from feeling too recycled or old-hat, which is also the case with the film as a whole. In 2015, more True Detectives don’t feel like the most necessary cinematic presence, but Marshland’s political context more than justifies its existence. Even if elements of its story feel like they’ve been done before, Rodríguez’s additions to the “two brooding male cops track a serial killer” formula keep it lively and fresh. (Max Bledstein)