If you’re a fan of HBO’s TV classic True Detective you’ll love Marshland, a taut police procedural set in the fenland of Southern Spain. It has the same backwater mystery and darkness, odd-couple interplay, dry wit, 70s cars, clothes and moustaches, with added politics and breath-taking aerial photography.
Marshland (Spanish title: La Isla Minima) begins with an extraordinary image taken from a drone aircraft. From miles up the fen landscape of Andalucia looks like a human brain drawn in crop circle loops. The film’s narrative is occasionally broken up by these aerial shots: only the tiny specks of moving fish, birds or cars show that they are real, rather than static works of abstract art.
It is 1980, five years after the death of the dictator General Franco, and Spain is going through a transition period. Demonstrators are shown giving fascist salutes on television; the country is not yet a fully-fledged democracy. Down in the sticks, two detectives from Madrid have been sent to find a serial killer who has been raping and torturing teenage girls. Pedro (Raul Arevalo) is an unsmiling young left-wing idealist, while the more sociable and charming Juan (Javier Gutierrez) is a veteran of Franco’s Gestapo.
As they work together and untangle clues to the murderer’s identity, the two men develop a grudging respect for each other. But this is no buddy movie with merry banter to lighten the uneasy atmosphere. The humour is as dry as the cracked Spanish earth over which the cops chase a poacher. ‘What size are those?’ asks a local, pointing to Pedro’s boots. ‘Size big,’ he replies. On another occasion a dodgy journalist tries to do a deal with him. Pedro fixes him with his blankest look and asks, ‘Would you trust someone like you?’
The performances of the two leads are natural and unshowy, in keeping with the organic feel of a film which feels ‘right’ all the way through. Directed by Alberto Rodríguez, Marshland won ten Goya Awards, (Spanish equivalent of Oscars) including Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Javier Gutiérrez).
Piece by piece, via a piece of half-burnt film, a tattoo of a triangle, a hunting lodge, a clairvoyant, a boyfriend with male-model looks and the mysterious ‘man in the hat’, the cops arrive at the truth. From our digital age, it was a treat to hear the recorded purr of an old fashioned telephone dial, as Juan works out the sequence of numbers being dialled.
Along the way, there are audience ‘jumps’ and terrific chases involving unglamourous cars (Citroen Dyane as getaway car, anyone?). The climactic chase is brilliantly done, with the torrential rain and blurry figures recalling David Fincher’s Seven.
The marshland of southern Spain brings to mind the Louisiana bayous of True Detective. This is a country marked by poverty, and its people still seem like shotgun-carrying peasants, eking out a living shooting deer and drinking river crab wine. Spain’s landscape is the star of the film, providing gorgeous sunsets and birdlife. Flamingos fly in formation. There is a natural soundtrack of screaming swifts, crying gulls, croaking frogs, buzzing flies and wheezing cicadas. Music is used sparingly, with the occasional finger-picked guitar adding local colour.
Hearing ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ played in a disco at the end is an enormous relief; the audience can finally let out its collective breath.
Or can it? There is one final dark twist to come …