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-[Film Reviews]-, EUROPEAN CINEMA, Spanish Cinema

‘El Hoyo’ (2019): “Cube,” But Vertical

Directed by: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia || Produced by: Angeles Hernandez, Carlos Juarez, Elena Gozalo

Screenplay by: David Desola, Pedro Rivero || Starring: Ivan Massague, Zorion Eguileor, Antonia San Juan, Emilio Buale, Alexandra Masangkay, Zihara Llana, Mario Pardo

Music by: Aranzazu Calleja || Cinematography: Jon D. Dominguez || Edited by: Haritz Zubillaga, Elena Ruiz || Country: Spain || Language: Spanish

Running Time: 94 minutes

Anyone familiar with my cinephile tastes knows I’m a sucker for well written, allegorical thrillers limited to a single production location. The works of Vincenzo Natali, in particular (e.g. Cube [1997], In the Tall Grass [2019]), are memorable for their creative use of repetitive yet meaningful imagery and minimalist yet inventive cinematography. Cube is perhaps the best known modern example of the one-location film, growing into a sort of cult project famous for its foreboding, Kafkaesque set-design and intelligent social commentary; in that film and in a select few others, the star is the scenery rather than any one character or actor.

One of the few glimpses we get of the world outside The Platform’s “Vertical Self-Management Center” is a mysterious, professional kitchen (top) that produces one magnificent feast per day (bottom) for the prisoners. Those at the top of the Center get first dibs.

It is difficult to imagine that type of story being told in a format other than on film, save for maybe stream-of-consciousness narration in a literary short story. Then again, limiting a given narrative to a single physical area in any medium is a tall task, no matter how visual one’s imagination may be. Filmmaking is such an expensive, labor-intensive art form that physically constrained productions are often a necessity for low-budget and/or first-time filmmakers, even if a given film’s original vision was not reminiscent of a Cube, Moon (2009), 12 Angry Men (1957), Rear Window (1954) or Lock (2013); with the right screenplay and the right director’s vision, however, any location, even one used over and over again, can become a powerful vehicle for cinematic storytelling. These narrative premises can separate the mediocre directors from the great ones.

Enter El Hoyo (“The Hole” in English, and titled as The Platform), the directorial debut of burgeoning Spanish filmmaker Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, which features a sort of nightmare “vertical-prison” setting where people — some volunteers, others imprisoned — feast once per day from a descending platform of food. This prison consists of an unknown number of levels at two people per level, and disallows any inhabitants from hoarding food while not forcing those in the upper levels to ration servings for those below them. These prisoners, let’s call them, are locked in this monolithic, surrealist complex anywhere from several months to multiple years, and are switched to different floors at random from month to month. Prisoners are also free to descend with that eponymous food cart to lower levels if they so wish, but climbing to higher levels is a virtual impossibility. Can you detect the social allegory, yet?

Much of what sells the blunt force commentary of single-location films like Cube and especially The Platform are (1) their creative visual storytelling, which requires cinematography, blocking and framing that can sustain a visually monotonous story for a feature-length (in this case, about 94 minutes) run-time, and (2) their embracing of the absurd. Like other dystopian, Kafkaesque thrillers before it (e.g. Brazil [1985], Videodrome [1984]), The Platform’s obvious thematic overtones are a selling point rather than a heavy-handed weakness because its filmmakers embrace the absurdity of their premise. Screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero also treat their characters with respect despite that narrative absurdity, none more so than their terrific lead, Ivan Massague, who may be the most effective everyman protagonist in a genre films since Thomas Jane in Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007).

Beyond those elements, the three main pillars of The Platform are its aforementioned set-design (i.e. the vertical prison and its diegetic tone), its infectious yet non-melodic soundtrack, and its montage sequences. The overall look, feel, and tone of the movie’s physical sets are immaculate and I am dying to know how much of their production was practical versus digitally enhanced. The film’s soundtrack is almost as effective, with its metronomic, foreboding rhythms enhancing the apprehensive mood of the story, as well as accentuating its sharp montage sequences. The latter tighten the film’s brisk pacing across a slim running time, and is an essential editing technique in a narrative setting this restrictive.

However, the film runs into problems when it relies on montages of Massague’s dream sequences or hallucinations to illustrate his mental state. I found The Platform’s dream sequences corny, overindulgent, and hamfisted in a way the rest of the movie felt powerful and to the point. Worst of all may be our protagonist’s weird, quasi-fetishist infatuation with a single mother also trapped in the pit, Alexandra Masangkay, who never says a word and whose entire “character” feels more like a prop than an actual person. While the story’s roundabout, somewhat upbeat conclusion ties into Masangkay’s character in an indirect way, I felt this subplot and the haphazard portrayal of Massague’s deteriorating psyche were the sole areas where Gaztelu-Urrutia overthought his filmmaking.

Zorion Eguileor (background), the first roommate of protagonist Ivan Massague (foreground), stuffs his face during the few minutes their level has access to their prison’s daily, descending platform of food.

At the end of the day, though, The Platform is a powerful, sharp piece of cinema that uses social commentary and satire to hone its filmmaking presentation, rather than the other way around. The physical backdrop of The Platform is, like the scenery of Vinzenzo Natali’s Cube, the true star of the experience for the way it establishes tone, story, and character arcs. Unlike Cube, the characterizations written by David Desola and Pedro Rivero and directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia stand on their own; I have minor complaints regarding El Hoyo’s depiction of dream sequences and various tropes of the unreliable narrator, but those are small potatoes compared to the specialized thriller narrative it otherwise executes so well. For those of us trapped inside for weeks to months at a time, I recommend skipping the likes of Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995) and instead encourage readers to experience a film that, I argue, analyzes societal problems a little more fundamental. Sometimes, characters stuck in the same place can be the most relatable cinematic figures of all.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Neither subtle nor apologetic, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s feature-length debut brings new meaning to the phrases “cinematic efficiency” and “social satire.” The film is equal parts gruesome and repetitive, but thanks to bravado production-design, a solid cast, and an effective soundtrack, its hyper-focused premise succeeds with flying colors.

However… The Platform stumbles when it portrays the dream sequences and hallucinations of its protagonist, played with gusto by Ivan Massague. His character’s obsession with another, minor character is odd, and his penchant for schizophrenia, unbelievable.

—> RECOMMENDED, nonetheless.

? How exactly does that platform raise and lower itself? Magnetic force? Magic? Invisible strings?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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