You have to hand it to these Spaniards! Rarely does a Spanish thriller disappoint in delivering what is expected of it, and Oriol Paulo's "El Cuerpo" (aka "The Body") (2012) is no exception. This is the kind of film that does justice to the oft-used term, Hitchcockian.
The dead body of a very rich and powerful woman, Mayka Villavarde (Belén Rueda) mysteriously disappears from the morgue. The police officials and morgue personnel are all equally flummoxed by the bizarre happening, especially after learning that the woman apparently died of a heart attack and her body was awaiting autopsy. In fact, the incident comes to light, after the night security guard gets run over by a speeding vehicle when he runs for his life, apparently upon witnessing something frightful in the morgue that night. Did someone steal the body? Who would have anything to gain from doing something like that? Or could the dead woman have walked, scaring the living daylights out of the guard? Police captain Jaime Peña (José Coronado) attempts to solve the mystery.
Oriol Paulo plays it like a pro and structures his screenplay in a clever non-linear fashion just as any intelligent mystery film of the sort. Peeling off layers gradually, revealing in bits, he works like a magician, springing a surprise on his unsuspecting audiences periodically, and ensuring that they are locked in, in awe at his sleight of hand. Consequently, the central characters of this deadly puzzle are introduced to the viewers in a calculated manner, clearly gauging or predicting the kind of reactions they are supposed to elicit.
In a series of well-timed flashbacks that would remind the viewer of the recent David Fincher thriller "Gone Girl" (2014), Paulo throws some good light on the nature of his characters, especially on the kind of relationship shared by Mayka and her much younger husband Alex (Hugo Silva) who now becomes a prime suspect. Although, it is revealed early on that Alex is involved in the death of Mayka, it is also made clear that he is clueless about the disappearance of her corpse. It appears that Mayka has Alex under her thumb, and he is tired of her dominating ways. An affair with a younger girl is also brought to the surface in the beginning, so we are well aware of Alex's character.
While this early revelation could be deemed as a writing flaw, it is in fact, a wise decision on Paulo's part, because it does away with that one predictable angle associated with a murder plot such as this. By making us aware, Paulo compels us to lay it to rest that this is a mystery of Mayka's murder. It isn't! It is in fact, the mystery of her post-death disappearance! Or is it?
Clues begin to pop up out of nowhere, mysterious notes and messages reminding Alex of some secret conversations with Mayka begin to find their way to him (also similar to the "Gone Girl" treasure hunt, especially in the way these clues, almost always shift the narrative to a flashback). He figures that someone who's well aware of what transpired between him and Mayka could be doing this. But somewhere at the back of his mind that shred of doubt prevails; could she still be alive? Just when Alex thought he had erased everything to do with her, it threatens to come back, and as luck would have it, his attempts to flush out any last bit of evidence implicating him refuses to ..well, get flushed, literally!
While the audience is made aware of Alex's connection to his wife's apparent death, the police captain Jaime already has all his attention focused on Alex, owing to his body language and communication that's all wrong for a man whose wife died just a few hours ago. Paralleling Jaime's intimidating behaviour towards Alex, Paulo also makes us privy to the fact, that Jaime, isn't the invincible hero, or an epitome of perfection himself. He is a fragile, troubled man, battling with loneliness and a volatile temper, that presumably once, caused his suspension.
It is essential for any thriller to make sure that the tension in the narrative remains intact and never lets up. In this department, Paulo aces it almost effortlessly and dares you to even bat an eyelid! While the devious plot machinations keep you on the edge, Paulo throws in a bonus with some absorbing drama centered around the face-off of Alex and Jaime.
Thanks to the solid performances by the two actors, their confrontations and battle of words/wits are a treat to watch. The events take place over a few hours in the night, almost entirely in and around the morgue, with the setting shifting elsewhere only in flashbacks, rendering an aptly claustrophobic atmosphere. When the action rests easy in a few places (only tiny bits), Paulo allows you to soak in the seductive atmosphere of the stormy night with its moody lighting and brooding characters contemplating away while blowing smoke in the rain.
"El Cuerpo" is a classy noir thriller that creates intrigue by striking a neat balance between a riveting plot and fascinating characters. With its baffling twists, some genuinely chilling sequences and necessary red herrings, it boasts of nerve-shredding suspense right until the very end in a hair-raising climax, with a conclusion that may raise a few eyebrows of amazement, shock or even disapproval. Sure, when one thinks back and analyzes, not everything will end up tied in a neat little logical box. There are implausibilities, but they certainly aren't impossibilities. It is the craft that triumphs here and more than makes up for the plot deficiencies.
Queue this one up in your watchlist. Best watched on a cold, rainy night!