There’s plenty to write about – it has the depth and distinction to inspire reviews to run long, inducing nagging headaches in sub-editors – and the only thing holding me back is my conviction that it’s best not to know anything about The Club going into it. There is a sly, calm, deadpan ‘reveal’ mid-way through the opening act that elicits a silent gasp, and I really don’t want to take that away from you. If you’ve seen a Pablo Larraín movie before, it’ll be the moment when the film slots perfectly into his oeuvre, and you know you’re in safe hands.
Larraín has been exposing hidden hypocrisies and perversions in his native Chilean society for ten years now, and this is his fifth feature. His last, the memorably titled No, stuck around in UK cinemas for a couple of weeks, probably on the back of its star Gael Garcia Bernal’s international profile. Though The Club lacks anyone in the cast with a comparable recognition/bums-on-seats factor, I hope it’s given a decent run next March because if anything it’s even better than No, though notably less colourful and energetic.
On a hilltop in a chilly Patagonian seaside town, the five members of ‘the club’ live together in a sort of retirement home. They are middle-aged to elderly, and they live in this virtual exile because of the crimes or serious professional indiscretions they have committed. At this point I realise I’ll be tying myself in verbal knots trying to withhold the one key piece of information that binds them, and in fact much of the drama and humour derives from how that binding factor is really the only thing they have in common. But they must remain tenanted together under strict house rules, and we can see how they’ve been forced to repress so much of their personalities just to keep a low profile in the wider community. Their one self-permitted vice is the ownership of a greyhound, which they train and observe racing from a distance, through binoculars. The dog is a natural, devotedly trained by Vidal and gradually accumulating for the club some tidy winnings.
The status quo is interrupted by the arrival of another of their number, whose dumb shellshocked appearance provoked dark chuckles from the audience. He protests to no avail that he has nothing in common with these criminals and degenerates, and on reflection I can well imagine that every one of these men must have made similar noises upon being dumped here at the end of the world, to live out the rest of their tainted lives. But somebody has followed him, a bearish vagrant named Sandokan who is intent on shattering the anonymity of the club’s life. There is a bluntly violent incident, and though the police are happy not to probe too deeply, the same cannot be said for a younger man named García, whose remit is to investigate, and ultimately to ‘clean house’.
Now that I’ve successfully (if wordily) danced around the plot spoilers, I’m free to be more general. Larraín has once again exercised his terrific knack for finding new angles from which to skewer the moral corruptions at the heart of Chilean society. The Club is as visually distinct from No as possible: where the latter lovingly adopted the look of the TV ad campaigns at the heart of its story, with its televisual aspect ratio, grainy 70s-style stock and vibrant colours, The Club takes its remote shoreline scenery as a visual prompt. Misty, blue, windswept and wintery, this is as panoramic as it gets.
Gradually all the club’s residents expose their psyches and flawed self-justifications, by way of ensemble scenes, individual moments, and one-to-one interrogations. The often outrageously brilliant script best serves Larraín’s regular collaborator Alfredo Castro, who is here given the most complex character to embody. He holds himself with a weatherbeaten calm, and seems to genuinely meditate upon repentance, unlike the rest of the men. Yet circumstances reveal in him a deep vein of weasely cowardice, a weakness he attempts to intellectualise. He has spiritually exonerated himself from his own crimes, and his words of justification are a thrilling moral tangle for the audience. His conversation with Sandokan in particular could offer different interpretations over a dozen viewings. Is he ministering to Sandokan or intimidating him? Is he putting himself forward as some kind of vanguardist religious thinker? Or is he just a horrible slimeball? Castro here is a world away from the Saturday Night Fever-obsessed serial killer he played in Larraín’s second feature Tony Manero (yes, you need to see it), and their partnership should be recognised as one of the most reliable and exciting in current cinema.
The Club is funny, dark, and gripping. It balances realism and absurdity, subtlety and style, and has the abundant confidence to say complex things in a strong, compelling voice.