Killing Words (Palabras encadenadas)

Spain (2003) Dir. Laura Mañá

The ability to tell a convincing story is a rare skill but one that can pay dividends, used correctly of course, unless one starts to believe the yarn they are spinning. This Spanish psychological thriller adds a fresh twist on the serial killer genre in both its narrative and its content, proving to be shocking in a variety of ways.

Psychiatrist Laura (Goya Toledo) is tied to a chair, gagged and held captive in the basement of philosophy professor Ramón (Darío Grandinetti). She has just been shown a video of Ramón confessing to the murder of a woman that same morning, showing no remorse for his actions. Ramón then offers Laura her freedom if she wins a word game, but will gouge out her eyes if she loses.

In a moment of desperation Laura persuades Ramón to let her psychoanalyse instead to explain his dangerous mindset. When he plays another video detailing another murder, Laura spots an error and uses it to her advantage, shifting the balance of power in this edgy game of cat and mouse. Oh, and Laura is Ramón’s ex-wife, having divorced him four years earlier in a messy split.

The origins of this deftly deceptive film are found in the stage play by Jordi Galceran, which Laura Mañá has adapted and expanded into a sinuous battle of wits, the purview of which runs on two levels. It is in this unique plot device of simultaneous storytelling that the genius of the script shines through and compels the audience’s sense of intrigue to discover exactly what the truth really is.

Clues are present, some even pointed out to us, but putting two and two together isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, given the twisting nature of how things develop and how the obvious becomes more opaque as the oblique becomes transparent. The parallel timelines relating a different side to the same story are key to distorting the facts and only one character knows the truth, a last minute reveal Mañá makes us sweat to reach.

It all hinges on the cool and calculated Ramón, a respected professor and lecturer with a keen analytical eye, and his grip on reality. Despite his easy going demeanour, the chilling video of his frank, almost nonchalant admission to murder puts him offside from the audience immediately, yet he we are eager to find out how a clear sociopath can be so calm.

When we first see Laura, bound and gagged in her slinky red dress and high heels, the initial fear is that this is going to be another misogynistic torture porn flick. Laura’s tear stained face and Ramón’s expressionless threats of removing her eyes with a spoon don’t assuage such fears but Mañá is not so willing to be that obvious. In actual fact, any real physical violence is limited to a few slaps – the true damage inflicted here is purely psychological.

The revelation of these two being a former couple isn’t shared until a good fifteen minutes into the film, with the police interviewing Ramón as the chief suspect in Laura’s disappearance. He pleads ignorance until the video confession is found, forcing him to come clean – with his version of events. In a brief indulgence of black comedy, while Ramón is telling his amicable version of his meeting with Laura, the images show the unpleasant truth.

At this point we begin to suspect Ramón might just be a fantasist and with Laura finally gaining the upper hand, he becomes a more pathetic character. But we must get ahead of ourselves because Ramón has proven himself to be a deep thinker and meticulous in his planning, and with the story being told to the police beginning to overlap and events start to share similarities that are too crucial to be coincidental.

Mañá’s script also shows flashes of brilliance in how the unresolved, lingering tensions between Ramón and Laura manifest themselves in a word game they play, where the last syllable of a word must be the first syllable of the next word. The pair use this to spit barbs at each other, providing plenty of subtle exposition into their relationship without endless info dumps or flashbacks.

“Subtle” is a good word to describe how seem to flit from one set up to another and the resultant change in mood with the frequency of the power changing hands. The flow is perfectly natural even with the intertwining of the police investigation and the nifty editing techniques that cut between one scenario to the other from the most obtuse of pivots.

With so much twisting and turning in the final act alone a clear resolution doesn’t seem to be forthcoming and even if it does, can we be sure it is the truth or are we being played again? We are putty in Mañá’s hands from the creepy opening of Ramón’s video confession shot in extreme close-up, slowly panning out to reveal the laid back speaker, to the perversely upbeat but ugly ending, set to a jaunty jazz song, and Mañá enjoys every second of this skilful manipulation.

There may be supporting characters in this film but ultimately this is a riveting two-hander between Goya Toledo and Darío Grandinetti, who play their roles to perfection. Toledo looks the part of the helpless victim at first but her sharp brain and vocational confidence give her an edge to break this illusion fairly quickly. Grandinetti dominates the film with his teddy bear like features that can switch between bewilderment and sinister on a whim, both suffused with tacit danger.  

I am surprised but glad there hasn’t been a US remake of Killing Words, nor should there be one, as no-one in Hollywood could match its nuanced atmosphere and downplayed horror to replicate its central psychology. Original, intelligent, cleverly constructed and utterly depraved, this film’s mainstream obscurity is as unjust and criminal as Ramón’s unhinged behaviour.