King Of The Hill (El Rey de la Montana)
By John Fountain
Meet Quim (don’t laugh, it’s his name, pronounced Keem. Although every time it pops up in the subtitles, I did giggle). Quim is driving across a mountainous part of Spain, and has recently had girl-trouble. His girlfriend won’t talk to him on the phone, and although we never find out why, it is easy to sympathise with the unseen woman, because Quim really is a whiny bitch. Quim (played to perfection by Leonardo Sbaraglia) is a twitchy, sweaty, nobody who really doesn’t engender sympathy for his plight. Struck by Modern Horror Movie Cliché #1 (poor mobile phone reception) Quim is forced to pull in at an isolated gas station to use the land-line. Is it run by psycho hill-billies? No. Instead, Quim meets mysterious,sexy kleptomaniac Bea, (Maria Valverde) and they hitch up in the bathroom. Yes, folks, Quim really is an unsympathetic man. And yet, Sbaraglia manages to get us on his side, simply by the charisma of his performance: Quim is not evil, nor is he a saint. He’s just…there. Like an Everyman character, full of flaws, but with a good heart. Of course, he is still on his way to try and win back his girlfriend, despite his quick knee-trembler in the toilets of the gas station. But Quim, inept that he is, gets lost in the mountains.
And that is where his life is irrecoverably changed. His car begins to experience difficulties. Why? Quim finds a bullet hole. Something is not right in the mountains of Spain. It’s not long before Quim realises that he is being hunted by one or more gunmen. A little while after that, Quim catches a bullet from a hunter with a black dog. Fleeing, Quim panics and runs the hunter down in his car. He runs into the mysterious Bea, also having car trouble. But there are things that are suspicious about Bea. He car has a baby seat in it, yet Bea doesn’t seem to have a baby. Has she stolen the car? Is she on the run? Is she involved with the hunters? Bea and Quim are forced to trust each other as they go on the run. When help seems to arrive, in the form of local police, Quim and Bea are arrested and Quim is handcuffed into the back of the police Land Rover. So everything is fine and peachy now? Far from it. There is no help here. When the hunters return, Quim and Bea must run again and their path will take them into a landscape where every tree could be hiding a murderer…
This is a great film. Quim is a whiney bitch, but his presentation is entirely naturalistic, and Sbaraglia plays it so realistically, that on occasion you feel as if he isn’t an actor, but just some guy off the street being hunted. That is to the benefit of the film. The other central performance, that of Bea, is likewise engaging. Bea is mysterious, strong but vulnerable, and Valverde plays her as a capable young woman who finds herself in a situation she cannot control and doesn’t understand. The third major player in this film is the landscape: Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, the director of this movie, should be congratulated in his ability to marry beauty and menace in his portrayal of the magnificent Spanish mountains. His use of the camera is also fantastic: the camera is always on the move, mirroring Quim’s twitchy, hunted nature. More impressive is his ability to bring a sense of claustrophobia to the outdoor spaces: this is achieved by using two key shots: close-ups and long-shots. Quim’s face is intercut with long shots of impressive vistas. The director invites us to empathise with Quim as his eyes search the distance for a sign of the hunters. The cat and mouse game is played for about 3/4 of the films running time, whereupon the film delivers a revelation that stops your heart dead in the chest. In doing so, sympathy with Quim is lost, only to be recovered by the power of Sbaraglia’s performance. The film’s viewpoint abruptly shifts to follow the hunters as they track their prey. It will only be later that Quim will once again take centre stage, and as an audience we will feel his pain as he has to make terrible choices to save his life.
This is a film that once or twice hammers it’s message home with a sledgehammer when a simple breeze would have sufficed, but it is a powerful piece of cinema that will shock and make you tihink. Despite all the horrors, the real tear-jerking moment comes a mere second before the credits. Quim’s ordeal throughout the film is leading up to the final seconds of the movie, a moment of ordinary life that merely underlines the terror. I will not spoil the film for you. I will not tell you of the revelations or of the heart-wrenching final moment. All I will tell you, is that this is a fine example of the new wave of Spanish horror films sweeping cinema over the last few years. You will probably cry (I know my girlfriend would, which is why I’m not showing it to her), but it is worth the tears to see such a good piece of simple, character driven cinema.