Don’t go into this gritty look at one of the world’s most notorious drug lords expecting a Scarface type bombastic thriller. Escobar, or Uncle Pablo as most people in this movie refer to him as, is more a malevolent force rather than the central character – but the film itself is a heart-stopping yarn where every thrill is painstakingly earned.
Canadian surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) thinks he has found paradise on a seemingly deserted Colombian beach with his brother. As if his laid back life couldn’t get any better, he meets Maria (Claudia Traisac) and falls madly in love with the girl of his dreams. The only problem is that a gang of local gangsters are laying claim to the beach and causing hassle for Nick. As his relationship with Maria escalates, Nick is introduced to her family. Everything is centred around her larger-than-life uncle, Pablo (Benicio Del Toro), who is fantastically wealthy and shows immense generosity towards the poverty-stricken people of the nearby villages.
Taking Nick in as one of his one, Pablo opens up his home to the wide-eyed and innocent Canadian. Things seem to be going well, and Maria and Nick soon marry, however the authorities begin to expose how Pablo actually makes his money and the web of corruption, violence and intimidation hits home for Nick when the gangsters who tormented him turn up dead after he tells “Uncle” Pablo of his suffering.
The film opens with Nick and Pablo trying to formulate a plan of escape. A metaphorical and literal dark road which leads to the drug lord asking his young confidant to commit murder. As the rest of the story unfolds we see the back story to this dramatic moment. It all unfurls at a slow pace and we expect things to explode into brutal action. They never do. The drama is instead placed on a slow burner allowing us an insight into the men at the core of the story.
The primary lead is actually Hutcherson. This is arguably his most mature role to date, moving on from the Hunger Games and other such fare. It’s also his best performance, combining the usual youthfulness he is known for with a healthy dose of harsh reality poured over his teenage features. He is drawn into the world of Escobar even though we know what he is getting into. The great skill of the script, and the performance, is in not making Nick out to be completely incompetent. He is naïve, but never stupid. His gradual realisation of what is going on around him and who Escobar really is, is the ‘ticking clock’ of this movie.
Del Toro is capable of electrifying performances. He is also capable of slumming it with the best of the them and dialling in a lazy turn in equally tedious films. Thankfully, in Escobar, he makes the most of a fantastically written characters. This may not be the accurate documentary-style film you are expecting and it’s certainly not the conventional biopic, but it is a superb movie put together in a carefully orchestrated manner with some heart-stopping set pieces late on.
Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano makes his directorial debut here, and has a light touch that you would expect of a well-versed veteran. This is a deliberately low-key film, and as such might require some tracking down if you want to watch it, but it is worth every minute.