Few films have shaken me quite like Harold Trompetero’s Dark Blood has. Uncut Gems (2019) left me vibrating from anxiety; If Anything Happens I Love You (2020) left me stunned, silently crying over the credits; Violet (2021) left me raw, as though I had been seen for the very first time. Trompetero’s Dark Blood bore itself into me, creating cracks and crevices which became rotten and sickly, utterly destroying me as I pondered the existential crisis loving father Misael (John Leguizamo) endured as one aspect of himself after another was cut away from him. Thanks to Trompetero’s almost documentary-like direction and a career-best performance from Leguizamo, what we witness, what Misael endures, is too real, too painful, too tortuous at times to watch.
Awaiting sentencing for committing a revenge crime against the man who murdered his son, Misael is placed within a Columbian prison while his defense attorney (Adriana Barraza) works to secure his freedom. Prior to this incident, Misael has had no criminal record, so adjusting to life in prison requires him to quickly get used to the lack of privacy in bathrooms or showers as well as the rules within the various dark and unclean areas. With each passing day, the life he remembers disappears and the unwanted attention from the head guard Caceres (Álvaro Rodríguez) grows more menacing and invasive.
One doesn’t really know what they’re capable of until the moment calls for it. Plenty of backseat drivers, couch coaches, and keyboard warriors will proclaim what they would do from their safe, seated position, but, when the time comes, that’s when we really know whether our feet move without thinking or if they become locked, immobile from indecision. As Dark Blood opens, the audiences knows exactly what Misael is capable of, sound and image combine out of the darkness of black to see Misael actively pummeling an unseen victim, the screen cutting to black occasionally, freeing us from the sight of a blood-spattered figure but not the sound. It’s an unsettling opening followed by a much tamer moment of Misael meeting his lawyer, him already in prison and about to be moved, though not long after his arrest as his hands and clothes remain covered in blood. It’s not until this conversation that the audience learns what Misael’s done and is given some sense of the man himself, both from the recounting of his past record by the lawyer and the way in which Misael moves the conversation back to his wife and remaining child, desperate to see them both. There’s some incredible brilliance in the staging and execution of these two scenes, especially as they set up what the audience presumes from one scene to the next and how our presumptions continually shift all the way to the end of the film. For one, the framing of the opening is shot from an upward angle, placing the audience right underneath Leguizamo, positioning us to receive each blow as if we’re the victim. It also means that we’re able to see the full range of his unfettered rage when the viewing lens allows. For two, we’re almost always a few steps behind where Misael is when it comes to the narrative itself. There are no exposition dumps in the form of unnecessary conversation or direction. Everything Trompetero shows us, everything the characters tell us (verbally or performatively) are the only things we have to go on. So while we might be terrified of Misael at first, learning why he’s in prison will immediately make him sympathetic. What comes next, though, you’re honestly not ready for.
What’s most disquieting about Dark Blood is that Trompetero’s cinematography and direction is almost that of a documentary and Misael’s time in prison is merely the subject. Much of the film is shot either at a distance or in extreme close-up, giving us the space to process the scene or forcing us to examine every bit of Leguizamo’s performance up-close. In one early scene as Misael eats a meal in an open community space, he’s approached about a dog called Mange, an animal he has a brief, but contentious history with, and the camera jumps between setting up where Misael is sitting in relation to the dog or right up on Misael’s face as he eats, eyes searching the crowd in an effort to maintain his safety. Whether coincidence or not, as Mange goes to Misael to beg for some of his food, the shot is lined up between two containers, only for someone to reach across the eye-line to move one out of the way. It could be Trompetero realizing that there’s something unexpected in his shot or its someone serving food moving something out of the way, but, however you choose to read it, it certainly sends a message that what we’re seeing is less produced and, therefore, more prone to spontaneity leading to unpredictability. The story we’re observing is as real as we are and this is only one of several moments throughout the film which convey such a feeling of terrible intimacy.
Dark Blood is a disquieting experience. So much so that it clung to me until well into the next day of viewing. It’s not just the shift in tone or approach from the types of characters Leguizamo is known for, but the combination of his performance with a script that empowers him to go to places yet untapped. It certainly helps that the dread we feel from the start only shifts and grows, never letting up, not for an instance, yet it never feels overpowering. I can remember my anxiety growing so large watching Uncut Gems that I wanted to shut the film of, but, with Dark Blood, each narrative shift only pierced my proverbial skin harder to the point of being helpless in my observation of events just as Misael grew more and more helpless with each passing moment. That Trompetero also gives us no sense of time, this documentary-esque tale grows more disorienting as we go, the days and nights blurring to the point that time itself possesses no meaning and is only measured by whether we’re alive or not to experience the next moment. Life, however, really only matters if it has meaning and, it’s with this, that the film, after seemingly taking everything away, reminds us what we will fight to keep.
Available on Cable VOD September 10th, 2021.
Available on TVOD October 11th, 2021.
For more information, head to FilmRise’s official Dark Blood website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.