Sometimes, the best way to explore and to study emphatic, significant historical figures, is through somebody else. It’s easy to find flaws – and holes – in the depiction of someone so publicly renowned, and often more profound to witness events through the eyes of a peripheral figure in their lives, somebody who was merely caught up in the situation, not the person who created it. It’s this very notion that lays the foundation for Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar: Paradise Lost.
We dive headfirst into the realm of the notorious cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro) through the blissfully naïve Canadian tourist Nick (Josh Hutcherson) – who finds himself unwittingly caught up in this perilous set of events when he meets the beguiling stranger, Maria (Claudia Traisac). The pair fall head over heels in love with one another, but what the foreigner hadn’t bargained on, was that she was the niece of Escobar himself, and in a bid to impress her family and ensure he doesn’t end up on any form of hit-list himself – he finds himself at the mercy of the criminal mastermind.
While there are benefits to having Nick as our protagonist – a character we can relate to, being just a normal, everyday guy that allows us to place ourselves in the situation – it actually works against the film in this instance, as the character is so hopelessly bland. With so few layers to his demeanour and no nuances, Hutcherson is also at fault for what can only be described as a wooden, unemotional portrayal. As such you crave more screen time for Del Toro, which defies the idea of making the character more of a looming, omniscient presence rather than being the protagonist. That is in part down to the enigmatic, absorbing performance by Del Toro, who remains so tyrannical and intimidating without ever once over-doing it. We only see him through the filtered vision of Nick, where Escobar must pretend to be somebody less barbaric; we see him at intimate family gatherings, as an uncle, a father – and yet never lose that sense of anxiety when in his presence.
Carelessly entering into the realm of the generic ‘white tourist abroad’ feature, we also drift frustratingly away from other supporting plots, such as the dynamic between Nick and his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet). This is indicative of a feature that persistently underwhelms – but thankfully, due to Del Toro’s fine performance and Di Stefano’s ability to evoke genuine trepidation and suspense, this picture remains watchable, and with enough about it to admire and take away.