Pablo Larraín has rather made a name for himself. He hasn’t even hit his forties yet, and the Chilean filmmaker has already made four features which resonated with audiences globally, their tales of powers large and small and the struggle to overcome them, felt by anyone in any country. His latest, The Club, is smaller in scale than the nation-sweeping ambition of No, but trust Larraín to keep the ideological scope huge.
Beginning innocently enough, we’re introduced to a small group of old men and one woman, all living together in a remote house by the sea. They don’t go out; they get on each others’ nerves; they have a strict bed time. When a new member is introduced to the home, the odd-group dynamic looks set to be played out in full – right before something horrific is revealed about them all. They are priests, relegated by the church in an effort to hide their crimes; child abuse and baby-snatching, among others. From that quiet (yet literally explosive) revelation, what ensues is a brilliantly orchestrated commentary on taboos and societal norms, and we are to quickly learn that no matter what side of the fence you find yourself on, there is always intense ugliness to be found. But the director makes sure that one particular message is never given; we’re presented with only the circumstances and the characters, and are left to judge or empathise – most importantly, both – by our own will.
Larraín also makes certain not to allow The Club to become tonally predictable; in mining its moral potential to much-needed depths, and a refreshing – if shocking – matter-of-factness about its characters’ wrong-doings, the movie consistently feels more and more like something Aesop would have written if he were alive today – even the monsters have demons to deal with. And crucially, Larraín keeps a strict morality out of proceedings; the events of this movie tumble one after the other, the priests victims of causality – mostly of their own design, but sometimes by others. Yet there’s always a delicious bolt of humour zapping through its veins; even its title is pitch-dark sardonic, a riga mortis grin to complement the unnumbered skeletons in the club members’ closets. But if there’s a negative to take away from the movie, it’s quality of a technical nature, not of substance; cinematographer Sergio Armstrong’s dim frames infrequently lower the impact of Larrain’s impeccably composed images, wavering curiously from out-of-focus shots to bad lighting. An argument could be made that Armstrong is only mirroring the murky morality of the film itself, but after seeing his retro-revolutionary work on No, that case isn’t particularly strong.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from this excellent chamber piece – another hit from Larraín – it’s that the actions of one affect the lives of many, and in ways both unintended and unexpected. It’s emotionally gripping, ideologically potent, and disarmingly entertaining – but it remains to be seen if, given time, The Club will stand as strongly as its predecessors in this director’s masterful back catalogue. But time, as this film tells us, does little to change minds.