Lorenzo Vigas’s The Box opens with a monotonous thump: the rhythmic sound of a shoe beating against the stained stall of a moving lavatory introduces the viewer to the tragic life of young Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete). The desert scope — shot enigmatically in glorious widescreen — demonstrates the cruelty of the Mexican outback, but for Hatzín, the endless desert is a faint afterthought. Death is merely a confirmation of his own familiar crisis; an ongoing parable that connects Hatzín with a mysterious man who resembles his own father. The grief that the young child holds is what ultimately drives The Box’s more intriguing social thematics, ones largely concerning labor exploitation, and which, in the way of so many such cinematic portraits of grief, prove ripe for post-screening discourse.
Admittedly, the intrinsic motivation behind Hatzín’s blunt efforts toward catharsis and is vapidly skimmed over in the film’s rushed opening act. The Box —aptly titled— traps itself within its desire to comment on the current labor crisis, utilizing Hatzín’s character as an emotionless vessel. Navarrete’s committed, inscrutable performance is both impressive and frustrating, and this is where Vigas’s attempts at forcing narrative stakes and intrigue is proven counterproductive. The film’s suffocating atmosphere and endless vistas already afford enough harrowing tension, amidst the film’s pre-established endgoals. The prominent issue, then, is with the needless ambiguity of Hatzín’s family-routed motivations, which leaves minimal emotional connectivity for the lead protagonist.
As the film progresses and the visual allegories continuously ramp with each revelation, Vigas’s unpredictable feature evolves into an unconventional Western: an unknown man and his silent sidekick, paired in a time-sprawling saga of crime, connection, and dysfunction. Genre is quite literally weaponized within the context of the narrative, with the intent being so that audiences around the globe can overtly relate and comprehend the nuances and even spoken messages found throughout the self-conscious and preachy film. Still, through the prowess of cultural connotation, the American tropes employed in The Box are able to enhance the grim realist drama; the power dynamics are neither gratuitous nor insensitive, but rather carefully executed in an intricately-woven patchwork of insightful social commentary.
Recurring images of mortality flirt with the gripping atmosphere and the riveting tension within The Box’s universe — just as in the film’s opening scene. The repeated thump featured in its first minutes are, more or less, also the perfect summation of Vigas’ latest venture: each thump represents yet another disappearance, another unmarked soul consumed by the underbelly of labor exploitation. Hatzín’s hardened shoe is an obvious symbol, a representation of youth and vulnerability consumed by the immediate social integration of manhood. It’s a blunt and obvious visual paradigm, one that immediately sells its thematic crux. And so, despite suffering from an instinct for the unsubtle, The Box is ultimately economical, and brilliantly simple in its premise, and distinguishes Vigas’s strength for ambitious but grounded social-realist drama amidst the density of Mexico’s aspiring auteurs.
Published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 8.