The Mugger (also titled The Assailant and El Asaltante, dependent on your location) is an unnervingly tense Argentinean drama. A mixture of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, bubbling up to Schumacher’s Falling Down, it’s a short, intimate portrait of a man pushing himself over the edge, and into hysteria.
It starts with a middle aged man furtively wandering around a sprawling school complex, where he intends to enrol his son. After amicably introducing himself as Alejandro Williams, he shocks the headmaster (and the audience) by pulling out a gun and calmly threatening to kill her if she doesn’t fork over the school cashbox. After some fumbling, Alejandro gets what he wants, leaves the school and hops on a bus headed for town, so happy that his master plan worked out so flawlessly.
After such a discombobulating and unmotivated opening act, I found myself inexplicably tense throughout the rest of the film. This man wanders around town, conversing in idle chit chat with store clerks and chatting to his wife on the phone, whilst also looking over his shoulder and expecting the worst. It’s a ticking time bomb, yet we never know when or if it will go off.
Former accountant turned actor, Arturo Goetz is fantastic in the enigmatic central role. With barely any dialogue, he has the remarkable ability to look both menacing but fragile simultaneously. We never find out his character’s backstory, whether he will get his comeuppance, or why he spirals into this world of criminal acts. But really, we don’t need to. His lack of obvious motivation makes the performance, and the film in which he carries, a constantly perplexing and engaging one.
Director/writer Pablo Fendrik has a distinctive approach to style. With no soundtrack and barely any dialogue, Fendrik structures the narrative of The Mugger around incredibly choreographed long takes, shot on a handheld digicam (some of which last up to seven minutes!). The constantly kinetic camera suggests Alejandro (if that is his real name) has a distinct lack of escape from his criminal impulses and their aftermath. Roaming around the streets of Buenos Aires, he is constantly in fear of who will be waiting for him around the next street corner and, as an audience, so are we.
At a slight 70 minutes, The Mugger‘s story is as underdeveloped and unresolved as the real life story which formed the basis of Fendrik’s movie. Although the lack of characterisation and detailed narrative structure may frustrate some audiences, it kept me engaged and curious throughout.
PS – You can watch the film right now over at the excellent MUBI.