An observation about American cinema is made early into writer/actor/director Ahcitz Azcona’s The Inevitable Death of the Crab (La Inevitable Muerte del Cangrejo) that’s incredibly obvious yet startling once considered: whomever the latest “bad guy” is to the U.S., they are the “bad guy” in cinema. Japan, Germany, Russia, China, and countries in the Middle East have all had their turn and now, it seems, it’s Mexico’s go. Whether it’s the globe-trotting, multi-cultural Fast & Furious series, Sicario (2015), Man on Fire (2004), and plenty more, the people of Mexico are viewed as indecent at best, corrupt at worst. Former President Trump even fanned the flames of fear with his statement on Mexico “not sending their best,” painting any immigrant from the country as some rot-infested vermin. As though to combat this notion, Azcona developed dramatic thriller The Inevitable Death of the Crab as a means of presenting a different view of the people of Mexico, one in which not all the people are corrupt and, in fact, they wish for a peaceful existence as much as anyone else.
Shortly after his wife and daughter leave on a cruise vacation, the endless ringing of a phone disturbs Barbos patriarch Carlos (Juan Manuel Azcona) from drinking his coffee and reading his paper. Frustrated at the broken peace, he answers the phone only for a voice at the other end tell him that he’s under observation, they know who he is, and Carlos must pay a ransom for protection. Confused at both the accusations from the voice as well as the ransom, Carlos hangs up. Yet the phone keeps ringing. When his son, Santiago (Azcona), returns from dropping off his mom and sister for their trip, his father fills him in on the constant ringing. Rather than leave it alone, Santiago picks up, and, in the process, makes things far worse.
Crab is a tale with two masters. The first is trying to battle the preconception of cinematic audiences that Mexicans are, through and through, exactly the stereotypes seen on television. Azcona does this by centering the film on Carlos and Santiago, two individuals, as far as the film confirms, who are just people. Based on the location, production & set design, as well as the limited information provided, Carlos is successful, has been in Mexico a long time, and generally enjoys travel and caring for his family. The script is kept minimal so we never learn what Carlos does, only that he does have an office, can afford a mostly windowed and spotless home, and has two adult children who live with him. We don’t know where in Mexico the story takes place, though there are several aerial shots in the film of Carlos driving that suggest a metropolis versus a rural location. Each of these details builds a profile of characters who are financially secure and well-educated, not necessarily affluent, but comfortable enough for two members to go on a cruise and Carlos to talk about traveling to Vegas more than once. In combination with Michel Amado Carpio’s (Echoes in the Dark) cinematography that provides a clean, natural look to every shot, absent the stereotypical yellow filters added to films shot in or standing in for Mexico, audiences are presented with a family that’s about as average as any upper-middle class American family. If representation matters in shaping world-view (and it absolutely does), then Crab succeeds here by offering a glimpse of a family as normal as any one might find in any American thriller where the protagonist finds themselves unexpectedly in the crosshairs of a villain.
The second master is the presentation of corruption that makes up the drama of the film. As Carlos explains to Santiago (the audience surrogate), there’s a scam where someone calls a person, manufactures a threat, and then uses the terror to extort money. From this explanation forward, Azcona peppers references (visual and auditory) of the constant battle between the broken ethics within the government and their forces and the average person. As Santiago and Carlos contend with ringing phones wherever they go (a brilliant way to breach safety and ratchet tension), it’s not just a formless voice that offers threat, but an unknown physical presence that could come from wherever the voice is located. Without a physical form, without a personage embodying the threat, the villain could take the form of a stranger, a friend, a gang member, an ex-con, an officer of the law, a government official, or something else that the imagination can conjure. By keeping the story entirely focused on Carlos and Santiago, the mystery of who the voice is matters less than the danger that comes with it and the unpredictability that consumes an average life. Azcona utilizes this wonderfully in a variety of ways including never once confirming the identity or truth of their situation so that, even when an incident occurs that raises the stakes for the Barboses, the audience is (like them) so consumed by paranoia that there’s no way to relax. Interesting a move as this is, where the story finds its narrative climax is a location both riveting and oddly dissatisfying, due largely to the lack of knowledge the audience possesses.
There’s a lot of ideas within The Inevitable Death of the Crab and most of them work beautifully, partly because Azcona demonstrates, through simple ideas, an advanced technique for a first-time feature film creator. The opening sequence begins in a 4:3 ratio as a flurry of images present various aspects, cultural and historical, of Mesoamericans, the score being a mixture of pleasant and uneasy tones, only for an almost imperceptible shift to occur that transitions what we see and hear from this opening into the world of the film. Later, during the climax, there’s a moment that quite literally caught my breath due to the sublime execution. Despite all of this goodness, there’s something about the ending which feels strangely anti-climactic to all the ideas Azcona presents. Not enough to feel as though the experience is wasted or unsatisfactory, just that the build-up of concepts doesn’t resound in the final moments.
The Inevitable Death of the Crab is a film by a Mexican filmmaker for Mexican audiences, those who will understand and recognize the issues that Azona explores. However, given how representation in cinema is addressed more than once in the film, I’d argue that the film is a statement for American audiences, specifically, as well. How often has the U.S. brought in immigrants to do jobs and then demonized them once the job was complete? How often do U.S. politicians utilize rhetoric that vilifies other humans, only to protect the businesses which take advantage of illegal and legal immigrants alike? There’s a hypocrisy in the way Mexicans are treated and represented in the U.S. and Crab presents a compelling opportunity to address it.
Available on VOD and digital September 5th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Azmun Films website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.