Escobar: Paradise Lost (TIFF 2014 Review)

Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)

Dir: Andrea Di Stefano

Pablo Escobar finally makes it to the big screen* but ends up playing second-fiddle to a Canadian surfer dude in the drug world thriller Escobar: Paradise Lost. Co-written and directed by first-timer Andrea Di Stefano, the film is tense and imbued with a strong sense of place but hampered by a romantic sub-plot that seems like more of a commercial consideration than an organic way into Escobar’s world. Nevertheless, it’s elevated by evocative jungle locales and a superb performance from Benicio Del Toro as the titular Escobar.

Josh Hutcherson plays Nick, the aforementioned Canadian who’s come to Columbia with his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet, the king of bit parts in 2014 art house flicks) to live a simple life of surf lessons and sun in mid-80’s South America. Their tranquil is shattered when a group of local thugs finds their beach encampment and shakes them down in typical fashion. Nick inadvertently stumbles onto a solution for his woes when he meets the beautiful Maria (Claudia Traisic) in town. Instantly smitten, the wide-eyed Nick soon learns that Maria has a powerful uncle, one whose influence and resources span the entire country and beyond. First introduced at a political rally glad-handing with the locals and grinning ear-to-ear, that uncle is notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro).

Nick (or Nico as he comes to be known) is oblivious to Escobar and his dealings, but his naïveté is gradually pulled back as he falls in love with Maria and is brought deeper into her world. The film supplies a nice progression from Escobar as a generous family man to a cold-blooded kingpin ordering acts of bone chilling violence, as Nick learns the severity of the situation he’s in and the stakes ratchet up. While the love story is rushed and the timeline unclear, the plot really kicks into high gear as Escobar’s empire begins to crumble. By this point Nick is no mere neophyte and has been fully brought into Escobar’s business, and as the walls close in around Escobar, Nick is treated as a trusted capo by Escobar and given a grave task.

While both Hutcherson and Traisic acquit themselves well in the roles of a tragic Canadian/Columbian Romeo and Juliet (Hutcherson in particular shows depths his earlier roles did not necessarily foreshadow), it’s Del Toro as Escobar who truly steals the show. It’s the kind of role that Del Toro could seemingly do with ease at this point in his career, but is nonetheless effective and magnetic in – a performance you can’t take your eyes off of. His Escobar brings to mind a more calculated Dr. Gonzo, a smiling uncle one moment and a ruthless, self-serving criminal the next. Lest you think he’s all bad, he’s given grace notes like a call to his mother before he turns himself in and a party scene that shows his generousity and love of family. It’s hard to reconcile the two sides of this larger than life character, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it paints him in the occasional shade of grey as opposed to just an irredeemable monster.

After the typical time jumps and place setting of the first half, the second half of Escobar: Paradise Lost gives way to what amounts to an extended chase sequence. As Escobar makes the final arrangements for his criminal empire before turning himself in, Nick seeks to first aid Escobar and later to escape his long reach.   Nick is put in one impossible situation after another, and Hutcherson actually sells the desperation and gravity of his plight. The film is more assured in these sequences, keeping the timeline tight and the action constant. Shooting in the wilds of Panama and in sequence allows the stress and heat to be shown across the actor’s faces as Nick rushes headlong towards a violent conclusion with Escobar’s men.

While the thriller elements are well done, your mileage may vary on the romantic sub-plot. Del Toro as Escobar is such an imposing presence that when he’s not onscreen for chunks of the film at a time the movie inevitably suffers. Ultimately, it’s a worthwhile excursion but I can’t help but want more Escobar and less Canadian surfer dude. If a true Escobar biopic is ever made, let’s hope Del Toro is up for reprising the role.

*Notwithstanding documentaries and his minor role in Blow

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