Sundance 2020 – La Llorona

The opening shot tells you you’re in good hands. A family of women pray intently in whispers as if they might evaporate if they stop. The shot begins in a closeup of one woman and slowly zooms out to reveal a whole chorus of worried prayers. It really sets the mood. Writer/Director Jayro Bustamente really knows what he’s doing in creating a richly layered horror film – or at least he does until the ending.

La Llorona takes place in the mansion of a dictator general who is on trial for the genocide of the indigenous mayan-ixcal people of Guatemala. His family has gathered there while protestors chant outside day and night, and with the arrival of a mysterious new maid a vengeful supernatural presence descends upon them. 

Bustamente is, above all things, confident. That is most valuable in young directors more than any other quality. Uncertainty can kill talent quicker than anything. He is patient, letting his shots breathe in long takes, slowly zooming in or out to heighten the tension and uncertainty. He knows when to withhold information from the frame, trusting you to figure out certain aspects of the film on your own. It succeeds there. The sound of incessant protesting outside continues to ratchet up the tension. This film is dealing with some heavy shit – the genocide of Guatemala is no easy topic to dissect, for starters. But he manages to weave together all these little sprinklings of social commentary on the genocide, class and race disparity in Guatemala – all into this nifty horror narrative to reckon with it all. Bustamente sticks you with the last people you want to spend time with, the family of a war criminal to really make you uncomfortable. It’s a worthy endeavor. There are a few moments of wry class humor. Consider a character in the backyard practicing meditation while protesters shout chants. Consider when they discover mold behind a bed, and the maid tells the general dictator that it’s black magic, and it doesn’t even phase him, he just responds that she should clean it up. 

This film is so damn good and sure of itself, which makes the ending that much more disappointing. Talk about fizzling out. It’s like watching an NBA game and a player gets a steal and then has the open court in front of him on the fastbreak, so you’re expecting an exciting dunk, but instead he just sets the ball down and sits on it. It’s the least interesting and satisfying ending to something that was previously enthralling. I understand what Bustamente was going for in the end, but it’s such a lazy avenue to tell it. You’re watching a real interesting, measured horror film that cheaps out for a half-assed confused jump scare to end on rather than examine any of what happened previously. You just go “Wait, what? That’s it?” It’s a letdown.

I don’t want to make it sound like I hated this film, I don’t. It’s just so damn close to being great if it hadn’t just shrugged off at the end. Bustamente has undeniable talent, and I want to watch his other films and am looking forward to what he does in the future. I just wish he would have stuck with what he was creating, because the ending does a true disservice to the greatness that came before.

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