IIFF 2007 -- BLACKOUT review



A sharp, moody thriller cloaked in genuinely affecting social realist trappings, the Filipino offering Blackout parlays strong performances and atmosphere into a hazy murder mystery built inside the ill-defined mental timeline of an alcoholic slum lord who, as far as he can recall, accidentally ran into and killed his neighbor's daughter while driving drunk late one night. Without giving anything away, suffice to say all is not as it seems to our (very) anti-hero.

Something of a cinematic UFO, Blackout's closest cousin might be South Korea's Sorum (2001), another thriller focused on madness fostered by guilt, set in a deteriorating tenement. In both instances “slice-of-life” mechanics ride shotgun with creative suspense devices, the married rhythms providing a unique and involving structure.

Prone to blackouts, which may be enhanced but not necessarily caused by his drinking, middle-aged Gil has tee-totaled his way into a bad marriage, poor business decisions, and a less-than-honest relationship with his loving young son Nino. Waking up one night passed out by Nino's bed, Gil discovers his car keys still in the ignition and the body of Isabella, his neighbor Belen's young daughter, lifeless beneath his rear tires. Panicking, he hides the body and attempts, successfully at first, to turn over a new leaf on all fronts. Guilt -- in the form of a series of increasingly surreal hallucinations (some involving Nino's professions of having seen Isabella) -- eventually turns Gil back to the bottle and forces an unraveling of the details surrounding what happened that bleary night, culminating in the discovery of a disturbingly warped emotional bond with Belen.

Gil's as unreliable a narrator as you'll find, muddying any sense of everyday truth for himself right down to the broken eyeglasses he refuses to fix. He's a drunk, a lousy father, and quite probably a killer -- exactly the sort of dark vessel missing from most modern suspense films. Robin Padilla's naturalistic performance sells perfectly Gil's see-saw moods, and is defined by his relationship with Nino. Above all his failings, Gil's inability to understand what it means to be a parent is most damning for the audience, and yet Padilla imbues these scenes with sympathetic turns throughout.

Director Ato Bautista's second film, Blackout is one hell of a rebuke of the sophomore slump theory. An omnipresent minimalist score and restrained but creative editing help enhance the feeling of our being given a window into both Filipino life and Gil's scattered mind, and a scene of medical violence (Gil's removal of glass from his hand, courtesy of a smashed liquor bottle) is one of the more authentic and intense in recent memory. The film's concluding sequence amps the suspense considerably, offering a rock-solid scare and jarring final image.

One hopes Blackout is capable of parlaying its combination of artistic and populist success into a broader release. In a world where fair-skinned, long-haired spirits have been given carte-blanche to populate multiplexes and video store shelves, a dose of realism mixed in goes a very long way.

Blackout trailer (Flash)

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