Though Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá has kept the runtime of his newest feature A Monster with a Thousand Heads down below 75 minutes, the film fails to feel anywhere as taut and lean as its duration would suggest. The film depicts a dramatic day and night of frustration, recriminations, and violence as a frayed Mexican housewife, Sonia (Jana Raluy), takes on the health insurance company holding out on her husband’s potentially life-saving medication. When it frames bursts of anger or physicality against the upper-middle class milieu traversed by its heroine, the film excels. It disintegrates, though, when analysed as a pseudo-political thriller: characterisations are not economic enough, the gloomy camerawork soon begins to meld each scene into another, and ultimately there isn’t enough meat hanging off the bones of the storyline to compel viewers to its hasty conclusion.
Sonia is wracked with stress over her husband’s debilitating illness, suggested to be liver condition which renders him pained and exhausted. When he falls out of bed in agony, she tries to move her specialist appointment forward to ask the doctor to prescribe him a new pharmaceutical that she has researched. The doctor’s callous, bullish refusal to see her sets in motion a chain of increasingly desperate events, as Sonia tracks down the health insurance company’s senior management and coerces them in pursuit of redress, with her teenage son Dario (Sebastián Aguirre) in reluctant tow. The way in which the nihilistic nature of Sonia’s plan is intimated to viewers, but remains seemingly unclear to her, is one of the plot’s stronger points. Dario’s moody, near-mute contributions and the insurer executives’ disbelief at the dowdy woman waving a gun around both ably convey that Sonia is in way over her head. Her initial plan, to simply convince the directors to re-evaluate her husband’s claim, soon becomes a kidnapping and exposure of the company’s illegal rejection practices. All the while, Raluy does well to depict her character as hopelessly optimistic but knowingly doomed.
Regrettably, other aspects of the plotting and characterisation don’t match up to its ability to evoke a downward spiral. The decision not to contextualise Sonia’s life outside of the film’s main events seems intended to drive a more explosive narrative, but instead leaves the film lacking: we are unaware of the extent of care she provides her husband, or of her day-to-day experience as a middle-class Mexican mother. The businessmen she shanghaies often come across as hapless dupes who are letting events unfold tamely, dulling the sense that the film has a meaningful foe towards whom Sonia is headed for a confrontation. For example, significant comic relief comes from how both the company HR head (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and CEO himself (Emilio Echevarria) are yanked out of a sauna, naked and at gunpoint, to answer Sonia’s questions—Cacho’s character Pietro makes a series of crude jokes about how the “massage” must have arrived. Similarly, an incongruous interlude at the home of another executive, where a young man in his underwear makes small talk with Dario about punk music, is cheery enough that it feels like an obvious setup for impending violence, and sure enough…
As mentioned above, the actual moments of narrative rupture through violence are shot eminently well. It’s key that Plá conveys the disparity between the righteous mission Sonia feels she is on with the real threat of human harm she causes, and the film’s style manages to express this through expressive blurring effects, nicely timed cutaways, and sound design that effectively evokes the hammering of unexpected gunshots or the viscera of a beating. These sequences never feel needlessly signposted, which makes it all the more disappointing that much of the rest of the film is so bland in appearance. Most scenes in the climactic second half of the film take place at night, and we are treated to cinematography straight from the school that teaches “green-tinged medium shots equal threatening situation”. The camerawork commits either to any consistent formalism or more immediate naturalism, and so we are neither effectively forced to consider our status as voyeurs to the events on-screen nor successfully drawn in as willing participants.
Ultimately, the idiom forming the title of A Monster with a Thousand Heads belies its lack of nuance. The “thousand heads” of the impenetrable, Kafkaesque private health system are explored in the most superficial terms, with the insurance company simultaneously held up as a straightforward villainous corporate machine, and treated as a ponderous bureaucratic joke. Plá’s clear talents are on occasional display here, but not regularly or convincingly enough to make the film necessary viewing.