Connoisseurs of bad Hollywood movies may recall 2002’s John Q, in which Denzel Washington plays a man who takes a hospital’s emergency room hostage after his insurance company denies coverage for his son’s heart transplant. The premise is preposterous, but that needn’t have been fatal—anything can work, given sufficient artistry. Case in point: the Mexican thriller A Monster With A Thousand Heads, which tells a broadly similar, equally ludicrous story about a righteously angry wife determined to save her dying husband by any means necessary. Emphasizing filmmaking rather than grandstanding, director Rodrigo Plá makes suspension of disbelief a non-issue; what happens matters much less than how the camera perceives what happens, and whose perspective it represents (or doesn’t) at any given moment. Plus, the movie runs a mere 75 minutes, moving so speedily that there’s barely time for plausibility objections to register.
Certainly, there’s no time to feel sorry for the sick husband, who collapses in the opening shot and is scarcely glimpsed thereafter. And it’s both efficient and significant that Sonia (Jana Raluy), his wife, puts a handgun in her purse before she even makes her first visit to his doctor (Hugo Albores), as if she’s anticipating the runaround she’ll get. After being ignored for hours and then politely rebuffed, Sonia and her teenage son, Dario (Sebastián Aguirre Boëda), follow the doctor to his house, where she pulls the gun and demands to know who can overturn the insurance company’s decision. This leads to a whole series of confrontations and home invasions, as Sonia slowly works her way up the company’s management chain, trying to secure the forms that will get her husband the enormously expensive treatment that he needs.
While A Monster With A Thousand Heads is reasonably suspenseful from moment to moment, Plá’s interests seem to be primarily conceptual. (This is his fourth feature, though the first to be released in the U.S.; he’s probably best known on the fest circuit for his 2007 debut, La Zona.) The outcome of each potentially violent showdown is never in doubt—there are no flash-forwards per se, but at various moments we hear, in voice-over, characters testifying at what is clearly Sonia’s criminal trial, thereby letting us know that the person in question won’t die, and that Sonia will eventually be apprehended. Even more fascinating is the way that Plá and cinematographer Odei Zabaleta continually shift visual focus in unexpected, disorienting ways. When Sonia accosts her husband’s doctor in his clinic’s underground parking lot, for example, none of their argument is heard, because the whole scene is shot from within the car of another random person who’s impatiently waiting for the doctor to pull out of his space. By framing this moment from the point of view of someone who sees Sonia as merely an irritant—who doesn’t care what she wants, just needs her to go away—Plá gets his point across without being didactic.
It’s admittedly not the most revelatory point one could make. Monster’s strength is also its primary weakness: The husband’s medical emergency, and the insurance company’s ostensible malfeasance, remain entirely abstract. Raluy’s tightly controlled performance never begs for sympathy, but there’s never any clear sense of whether she’s genuinely being screwed over—screenwriter Laura Santullo (adapting her own novel; she’s also Plá’s wife) counts on our instinctive distaste for the insurance industry to do most of the heavy lifting. Consequently, the film’s emotional stakes, despite its literal life-or-death scenario, are somewhat muted. All the same, it’s worth seeing just for its object lesson in how shifts in perspective can radically alter the tenor and meaning of material that might otherwise come across as pompously silly. The movie’s title is metaphorical, but its multiple viewpoints—many of which represent one of those thousand heads, even if only for a minute or two—ensure that it never feels like a bombastic lecture.