Complex, thought-provoking, daring and bleakly funny in the most disturbingly possible ways, Pablo Larrain’s ‘The Club’ is a savage little intimate drama.
It’s also a peculiar companion piece of sorts to this year’s awards darling ‘Spotlight’. Anyone who has seen that movie will recall the sequence in which a father discovers that a house on his street was used to shelter priests accused of child molestation. Larrain’s film takes place inside one of those houses and tackles all the icky subject matter therein head on.
The film opens by gradually introducing viewers to the four aging priests and one creepily perky nun sharing a house in a small community. Their days are dull, spent mostly in hiding. Their only connection to the outside world is a dog that they train to race with great success. They watch the race from a distance through binoculars and squirrel away their winnings for unknown purposes. Things are shaken up when a stranger (Roberto Farias) arrives. He screams about being molested as a child in graphic detail outside the house. Eventually, one of the hidden priests commits suicide. That event prompts the arrival of a new priest (Marcello Alonso), sent to interrogate and challenge these lost souls in the hopes of getting some sort of confession and doling out penance. In other words, the movie doesn’t exactly occur within a happy space, and you can be certain that it isn’t marching towards a redemptive ending either.
This isn’t a movie that attempts to needlessly redeem characters for their atrocious past actions or tell a story about people stumbling out of the darkness into the light. The subject matter is far too complicated and frighteningly real for that sort of thing, and Larrain (who directed the excellent, Oscar nominated ‘No‘ and several other acclaimed political features) is too clever a filmmaker for it. He knows how murky the waters are that he’s swimming in and even shoots the film in a muddied, cloudy and gray aesthetic to emphasize that visually. Instead, his story is one of completely broken people. The interrogation sequences chillingly display how damaged the banished priests are by showcasing just how deep into denial (and in some cases mild insanity) they’ve fallen. The film makes it clear that their victims have suffered far more deeply, but doesn’t deny that the priests were broken to begin with and were enabled by a corrupt system.
To make such difficult subject matter bearable, the filmmaker also sprinkles in light wisps of dark humor that provide some measure of relief. That’s not to say that the movie is a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, more that the director sees the inherent absurdity in the scenario and the characters’ attempts to find normalcy.
Of course, a sense of dread hangs over the proceedings and it’s clear right from the gate that Larrain is building to an unsettling climax. Unfortunately, that climax is likely the weakest section of the picture. At a certain point, all the excellent work from the actors and the screenwriters gradually shifts away from realism. The characters all become symbols within Larrain’s grand design. Some of the final reveals and swelling dramatic beats feel forced to make a statement and generate shock rather than feeling like a natural extension of the sad and truthful little story in play. The climax still works; it just feels a little too on-the-nose compared to the tightly crafted and naturalistic setup that precedes it.
Still, even if the movie gets a little too preachy and proud, perhaps that was inevitable. Larrain takes some pretty big risks simply by daring to tell this story, and he does so with unforgiving harshness and distressingly bleak humor. The fact that the final movie turned out to be this potent and watchable is quite an achievement. ‘The Club’ isn’t Pablo Larrain’s finest film or even the best movie made about this specific subject in the last 12 months. However, it’s a fascinating and ambitious achievement worth seeking out. It’s remarkable that this movie got made in any capacity.