Right up to its final moments, the Ecuadorian thriller Cronicas seems like a standard killer-thriller, albeit a remarkably gritty, immediate one, the kind Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu might helm. But while writer-director Sebastián Cordero starts out with a standard procedural—serial killer strikes, dogged journalist pursues, power games are played, lives are gambled, etc.—he wraps up in a jarring and unlikely spot that turns the entire project into an ethics course. It's not about the efforts to catch a murderer so much as it is about the people making those efforts, and their egos, flaws, and follies.
Perennial comic John Leguizamo takes on one of his most hard-driving dramatic roles as a TV journalist out to unmask the serial killer terrorizing Ecuador. His insightful but exploitative tabloid reports on more than 150 children found tortured, raped, murdered, and buried in mass graves have made him a television celebrity, and he's determined to catch the murderer—preferably on camera with a worshipful audience watching. He makes his ambitions clear while attending the funerals of three victims of "The Monster": When a child is killed in a truck accident nearby, and the bereaved locals viciously take out their tensions on the driver (Damián Alcázar), Leguizamo bravely wades in to rescue him—once the police start breaking up the crowd and the camera is rolling. His boss (Alfred Molina, seen only through the distorting lens of a TV screen) artfully edits and runs a segment crediting him with saving Alcázar's life while the police did nothing. This puts Leguizamo and the local cops at odds, which becomes problematic when Alcázar begins to confide in Leguizamo, sharing secrets that seem to come direct from The Monster.
A good chunk of Cronicas is simply devoted to the procedural, as Leguizamo and his tiny production team research both Alcázar and The Monster while clashing with the locals, the cops, and each other. The mystery, the film's grainy but vivid intimacy, Leguizamo's queasy role as an anti-hero with shifting motivations, and Alcázar's riveting is-he-or-isn't-he performance all draw plenty of interest, but the film begins to disintegrate when control—and therefore legitimate blame for what follows—falls out of Leguizamo's hands. The tension goes up in smoke as Cordero meaningfully points fingers, but points them in the wrong direction, making Cronicas a morality play with a confused moral. It's daring and it's different, but it might hold up to scrutiny better if it was just more of the same.