Missing girls in a swampland and two very different detectives tasked with sifting through the locals’ alibis is a narrative conceit now very familiar to select audiences. Marshland (La isla mínima), written and directed by Alberto Rodríguez, seems to be promoted abroad as Spain’s answer to HBO’s True Detective. The comparisons to the Cary Fukanaga-helmed series are clear, both murder mysteries in isolated, rural communities with a focus on the undercurrents of power within the police coupled with distinctive and heavily colour-corrected cinematography. Though where True Detective was somewhat generalistic in its interpretation of power and influence, Marshland is hyper-specific, the events of the film taking place during Spain’s transition to democracy and its characters all reflections of a varied response to that shift; the detectives themselves political opposites coming together to stamp out evil. In that vein, it has something in common with Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, and for both of those films a working knowledge of contextual concerns helps a lot in engaging with the twisty plot.
When Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a young and brash detective, and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), an over-the-hill veteran, are assigned to locate two missing girls in the Guadalquivir Marshes, they initially think it nothing more than the two girls running away from home; after all, so many of the people in the town yearn for escape, and the familial link between the mother of the girls and a member of the Army lead them to believe the investigation is a glorified courtesy call. That is, until they find the two bodies in the marshes, and discover that these two girls aren’t the first victims of what appears to be a serial killer in the region. The plot on the whole isn’t particularly complex, and the denouement has more to do with a thrilling edit than a particularly satisfying narrative reveal, but it’s the way that Rodríguez and co-writer Rafael Cobos layer on red herrings and deal with the notion of mystery beyond the central investigation that Marshland is lifted above other dour procedurals of this ilk.
In making the past of one of the detectives a compelling subplot, another element akin to True Detective, the film showcases an interest in the impact of murder on people moreso than the act of murder itself. Keeping the family of the primary victims a constant throughout the film, whilst also running with a motif of the photographic object reinforces a focus on tangible memory – the things mourned, repressed, or both. To complement this idea of connection, Rodríguez packs the film with instances of isolation and decay; we see perfectly preserved houses post-abandonment, a community whose true ruler isn’t a government or Army troupe but a white capitalist who controls the local mill. It’s a clever continual juxtaposition that seems to assert that both democratic rule and the fascism of Franco neglect the people; all they have are their own senses of morality and justice, continually undermined by the circumstances they find themselves in.
Álex Catalán’s cinematography takes us from scorched earth to torrential downpour, this unnamed forgotten town occasionally morphing into the visual hellhole the residents describe it as. The moody tight shots are occasionally interrupted by aerial photography worthy of inclusion in Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark, in particular a shot over the site of the first two bodies; as the cars and trucks of man follow the road on the right side of the frame, a flock of birds fly in a mostly straight line on the left. It’s both awe-inducing and chilling, the insignificance of investigation, murder and human life summed up in one shot, early on in the film. The repetition of these shots sees a deflation of the importance of the investigation, a brilliant tool in reinforcing the response of the Army and the police captain to the murders – that they should be dealt with quickly, and forgotten.
It stumbles at points with regard to a lazily constructed stereotype of tabloid journalism as well as the fairly rote violent cop routine, in fact outside of big reveals it’s mood that reigns supreme over tangible character development. That noted, for lovers of detective-led procedurals, Marshland comes as an above average incarnation; whilst its broad plot might be a touch too neat, it manages to say quite a lot about entrenched neglect and ignorance both within and without systems of power. Not content merely with thematic rumination, though, Rodríguez also fits in a few thrilling set pieces – a pitch-black car chase and the marshland shootout among them. Whilst perhaps not as distinctive as the television series it has been compared to, Marshland is still a bold and engaging take on a well-worn narrative archetype, sure to satisfy audiences who hunger for darker fare this Spanish Film Festival.