Stunning visually, blessed with a terrific central performance and satisfyingly creepy, Hierro still feels a little thin – it’s, at heart, a slight storyline with only one (slightly too transparent) trick up its sleeve. It opens with a brilliantly-staged car wreck in the dark, craggy landscape of the eponymous island as a distracted mother drives off a road at night and soars to crash in the rugged landscape, then wakes up to find her young son – who was groping for a toy car – has disappeared. Then, some time later, Maria (Elena Anaya), who works in an aquarium and seems part-mermaid, takes the ferry to the island with her fatherless young son Diego (Kaiet Rodriguez) and nods off in a chair while he’s romping around. When she wakes up, the boy is missing and she has to watch all the vehicles drive away – certain her kid has been snatched and is in one of them – because the staff say it’ll be easier to search the vessel once they’re all gone. Diego doesn’t show up, and months later she’s summoned to the island to identify a corpse the locals are convinced is her kid – she says it isn’t, and has to stay a few days until a judge can be secured to supervise a DNA test, whereupon she comes across the story of the earlier missing kid (a rainstorm washes her poster off to show another beneath it) and suspects the disappearances are connected and that a hostile, neurotic German woman (Mar Sodupe) at a remote trailer park is involved. She finds her boy in the trailer, fights for her life to rescue him, but he’s even more withdrawn than he should be after his ordeal and, by now, she’s so paranoid about the island (and suffering from a scissors wound) that she tries to smuggle him back onto the ferry.
The twist – spoiler – is that she hasn’t rescued her own son, but the kid from the prologue: we have one of those montages which skips through the whole third act again showing the other boy where she’s been seeing (and we’ve been shown) her own child. Somehow, despite the extensive seemingly objective shots of the kid, we always know it’s not Diego, and so the feint might have been dispensed with. Anaya, one of the brides of Dracula in Van Helsing, is superb with little dialogue, giving a multi-layered study of anguish, guilt, determination and insanity as the loss of her child breaks her connection with nature (the water) but even a glimpse is enough to let her slip back into the ocean. There are surreal dream inserts of a desperate pieta with upwards rain, but much of the film – from the tunnel through a huge fishtank where Maria works to the alien landscape of the island (which looks like the desertscapes of Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, which similarly plays on the terror of driving through a dark landscape) and several moments where characters’ subjective time distorts – has a similarly magical, bizarre feel.
It has a measured, stately pace and depends a lot on its long pauses – a risky strategy in a mystery – but successfully crawls into its heroine’s mind. The supporting cast are properly overshadowed, but director Gabe Ibáñez cannily shows how everyone around Maria is sympathetic and tolerant but ever so slightly keen to get on with their own lives and trying hard not to shout at her: a friend who accompanies her to Hierro needs to go home to her own sick baby, the authorities are put out when she won’t identify her boy’s corpse (it develops that they almost certainly know it’s her child from his watch and her identification of the body was a formality) and a local policeman is neutrally helpful in an almost sinister manner (though the film doesn’t go overboard on the fact that a crazy woman solves his open case for him). This plays better as an analysis of grief, in the vein of Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven or Keane, than a thriller after the manner of The Vanishing, Scripted by Javier Gullón, of El Rey de la Montaña.