Eye For An Eye (Quien a hierro mata)
Spain (2019) Dir. Paco Plaza
Revenge may be sweet or a dish best served cold or whatever epigram you care to apply to it but it is also a very messy scenario to be caught up in, largely through being a two-way street. It is a never-ending circle of tit-for-tat attacks where nobody wins and the innocent usually pay the price.
Notorious drug lord Antonio Padín (Xan Cejudo) is released from prison but now in his advanced years, he decides to move into a care home rather than stay with his two sons Tono (Ismael Martínez) and Kike (Enric Auquer). Smarting from this rejection, the hot headed brothers engage in a deal involving Columbian and Chinese gangs against their father’s wishes, which goes wrong and they need Antonio to bail them out.
Meanwhile, at the care home, Antonio is being looked after by male nurse Mario (Luis Tosar), a popular man and expectant father with wife Julie (María Vázquez) due to give birth. But as convivial as Mario seems, he laces Antonio’s drip with bleach and injects him with heroin in revenge for his brother over-dosing on drugs given to him by Antonio. Then Tono arrives in desperation for his father’s help.
Distributed via Netflix, the original Spanish title of Eye For An Eye, Quien a hierro mata, translates as “Who kills by iron”, referencing the famous idiom about living and dying by the sword. The sword in this case is the hypodermic needle, but the film is less about the ironic symbolism of the title, more about the messy cycle of pain caused by vengeance.
Known for the first three films in the REC series, Paco Plaza may have steered away from his horror roots in this outing but implements some of its nuance to great effect in the gritty second half. You may wonder if we need another film on the subject of vengeance but once the end credits arrive following one of the tensest and dread filled climaxes ever seen, you are glad it does exist.
Written by Juan Galiñanes and Jorge Guerricaechevarría, the script does an excellent job in lulling the audience into a false sense of security from the opening. It begins with Kike torturing some poor soul over a missing shipment by drowning him in the sea inside a crab-catching basket. The Padins use a fish factory as a cover for their more lucrative drug business.
Antonio doesn’t show much love towards his sons, a pair of entitled, dyspeptic thugs for whom subtlety and discretion are missing from their vocabularies. Seeing them in action makes us understand why Antonio would want a quieter life away from them; his infamy precedes him upon arriving at the care home however, only Mario is welcoming to the new arrival.
If I were to sum up the intent of this film, it would be to cause us to examine our own sense of morality, not those of the characters. Mario is the prime case – all smiles and warmth but the calculated and meticulous execution of his campaign against Antonio is akin to that of a serial killer. Mario his professional knowledge to cover his tracks for fear of being found out, right under the noses of his colleagues.
Even when his motive is revealed, I am sure some will wonder if Mario is right to give Antonio – if you’ll pardon the pun – a taste of his own medicine. We should be on his side but he is also taking the law into his own hands, thus no better than any other murderer. Here, the two worlds of Antonio converge, his descent into hopelessness coinciding with his sons being up to their neck in it and needing rescuing ASAP.
Tono is unhinged in his mission to prove himself to his father, and with Kike in prison with the Columbians after the drug deal went wrong, they need money fast to pay them off and get Kike out. It is interesting to see Kike, he of the swagger and big talk under the purview of his family reduced to a scared child in prison; there is an attempt to make him seem sympathetic, but more likely schadenfreude is the reaction engendered.
Only one option is left – get Antonio home and use his influence and money to fix things, but his father’s stubbornness is resolute, forcing Tono to find a Plan B. He accosts Mario, telling him to persuade Antonio to come home or something will happen to Julia. With the stakes raised, things get really dark, and the story veers into directions unexpected, with chances of a peaceful resolution slim at best.
Plaza draws heavily on the suspense of the REC films to make the third act as nerve-wracking as possible. Some staple contrivances are thrown in to impede the cast, but are necessary, referring again to the closing scene; just the idea that something may happen is enough to have us on edge. Keeping the musical score to a minimum, silence and busy camerawork are sufficient in building an atmosphere of pure terror.
Smooth shifts from steady drama to uneasy thriller are difficult to pull off but Plaza does this with a masterful exponential vacillation of tone until settling on nail-biting horror at the end. A mention also due for the editing where Julia is giving birth (in all its graphic glory) and Antonio is dying, the intercut scenes juxtaposing life and death in one lyrically visual moment.
Luis Tosar, in great form as the morally challenged Mario, heads a terrific cast, although Ismael Martínez and Enric Auquer do lean towards caricature as Tono and Kike. But this is offset by the chemistry created between Xan Cejudo and Tosar, their interactions as Antonio and Mario showing potential for a riveting two-hander stage play.
Eye For An Eye is a tightly written, emotionally taut treatise on moral ambiguity and the folly of revenge, where the end never comes and the suffering never ends.