My notes on the thriller O Animal Cordial (The Friendly Beast)
A Brazilian hothouse psycho-thriller from writer-director Gabriela Amaral Almeida that segues from theatrical suspense into grand guignol dementia – as with most films set in restaurants, it’s only a question of time before human meat is on the menu. It’s pitched at hysteria from quite early on, but the protagonists still manage impressive arcs as they descend – or rise – into a shared insanity that has horrible consequences for the mostly unlikeable folks who have the bad luck to get stuck with them through a long, intense night.
It all takes place in one location – even the establishing shot is indoors, and whenever we get as far as the door the camera doesn’t pull back to show the street – with only the vaguest sense of a city outside La Barca, a restaurant struggling to build a reputation on the back of grumpy, long-haired, sexually and racially ambiguous chef Djair (Irandhir Santos). Manager-owner Inacio (Murilo Benicio) is scorned for his ambitions by an infuriating unseen wife and is, as it turns out, trying to claw back his territory after a traumatic robbery, while waitress Sara (Luciana Paes) is stuck in a netherzone between management and the kitchen. It’s fifteen minutes to closing and gruff guy Amadeo (Ernani Moraes) is making a meal of elaborately-prepared rabbit when an uppercrust, patronising, distracted couple – Bruno (Jiddu Pinheiro) and Veronica (Camila Morgado) – arrive and manage to order wine and a meal while ticking off everyone in the chain of command from manager to server. The catalyst for the rest of the horrible night comes when a pair of masked armed robbers burst in and, not content with taking all the easily available cash, linger to have nasty kicks, with alpha crook Magno (Humberto Carrao) sexually assaulting Veronica and his mate (Ariclenes Barroso) trying the same on Sara (with the unflattering ‘she’s ugly, but she’ll do’). However, Inacio has bought a gun since the last robbery and learned how to use it – and Magno is only packing a plastic toy.
Rather than the criminals holding staff and customers hostage, it turns out that the real threat is the manager – who has been pushed further and further into madness by every single social interaction – and everyone else in the restaurant is just collateral damage as he goes after the real or imagined source of his ire, the soon-to-defect chef. Meanwhile, Sara becomes just as cracked as her boss and goes fully over to the dark side. Quite a few of the clichés of the home invasion/hostage thriller crop up – the makeshift bonds and desperate attempts to get free, the shifting loyalties and enmities among the hostages and hostage-takers, the stripping away of civilised veneer so brutal revenges can be taken, the elimination game as folks are despatched and taken out of the argument, and the general irrelevance or uselessness of the authorities – but Amaral is more interested in her odd couple of heavies, who are bruised emotionally by all sorts of cringe-making abuse, but eventually cut loose to become monsters, ignoring their own flowing wounds and the quantities of other people’s blood splashed on then to get together in a funny, gruesome sex scene.
It doesn’t quite escape from the rote misanthropy of too many films in this vein – the underlying message, as often, is that people are just awful – but Benicio and Paes are extraordinary, and manage to retain shreds of sympathy for characters whose poor choices and just plain lunacy lead them into darker and darker places. Early on, we get a sense that the pair will emerge as the lead crazies because they both have the habit of rehearsing or rehashing conversations with themselves in the mirror – inevitably, the mirror gets smashed and Inacio and Sara both return to look at their fragmented reflections, in one of the movies’ oldest symbols for madness. This has a lot of that sort of cinematic boldness and brio, but Amaral is also tactful – in a way that many male directors with this subject wouldn’t be – in her depictions of violence, which are upsetting but not gloating.
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