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All words: Alan Pyke

People who make movies almost universally agree they should be exciting to experience, in one way or another. The visual dimension of a movie is far from the only axis on which to conjure thrills, but it’s always going to be the primary venue in moving pictures. We’re living in strange times with visual storytelling. Whatever you do, the belief seems to be, you’d best do it very very big. The dominant mode of movie-making excitement is bombastic and heavily kinetic.

Advanced digital animation tools have blown the lid off the definition of “epic,” and immersive approaches to visual storytelling have convinced a lot of directors and producers that audiences want to feel dragged, hurled, and crumpled along with the characters they’re watching fight and flee. You’re more likely to get motion sick than gore-nauseated at even the bloodiest fare these days. Somebody greenlit a World of Warcraft movie, and action franchises from Bourne to Batman seem to think moviegoers came for a rollercoaster without the sunshine.

In all that maelstrom, it’s refreshing to watch someone call “bullshit,” not with a shout but a whisper. A Monster With A Thousand Heads is an exciting movie in which the camera itself never moves.

Instead, director Rodrigo Plá and cinematographer Odei Zabaleta select precise, meticulously composed shots, and leave their camera entirely static for each one. Their vision is not without motion. But they put the lens to work instead of dollies and steadicams and whip-pans.

The result is tense. The camera’s stasis withholds information, and their tight control over which part of their image is in focus and which is fuzzy or outright unintelligible clutches at the viewer’s brain like a chokechain. The technique allows Plá to unfurl a story that might otherwise feel too familiar or polemical in ways that are genuinely thrilling.

A Monster With A Thousand Heads takes its basic plot beats from a number of other, much worse movies like John Q or Money Monster. Sonia’s husband is very sick and their insurance company is stonewalling her attempts to get his treatment reviewed, and in her desperation she takes a rash course of action. The technical mastery of the filmmaking elevates that roughly familiar outline into something far more engaging.

The editing rhythm of the film is predominantly slow and long, but occasionally the filmmakers perforate that expectation with a series of dizzyingly quick cuts, sometimes within a single scene but often jumping suddenly ahead in the timeline. The camera often frames out parts of bodies for long moments that force you to slow down and interpret rather than simply chewing your cinematic cud.

Their control of the focal distance is key to making it all work. Facial expressions are often blurred to abstraction for several seconds before anyone walks into focus. More than once I worried my internet connection was slowing down, only to realize a second later that the focus of a shot was actually on a reflective surface tucked deep in the corner of the frame, so that faces and moving bodies in the blur suddenly became sharp in a remote window or mirror.

The cinematic techniques that make Monster so much more engaging and suspenseful than some trite political manifesto also allow Plá to mine something deeper than simple anger at injustice. The end effect of what Plá and Zabaleta have done is to foreground the physical spaces in which poor patients, rich medics, and hapless middlemen attempt to make their lives.

If you accept their invitation to immerse yourself in this story – without the camera trying to trick you into thinking you’re really the one having that fist fight on screen – you’ll find a tale that offers both condemnation to material unfairness in the world, and forgiveness and empathy to all the human beings who operate within it.