John Leguizamo as Manolo Bonilla
Damián Alcázar as Vinicio Cepeda
Leonor Watling as Marisa
José Maria Yazpik as Ivan

A riveting, complex psychological drama that defies many rules of its genre, while creating something far more memorable for it.

A serial killer, dubbed the “Monster of Babayaho”, has been terrorizing the children of Ecuador. The same day a group of his victims are buried, an investigative reporter from Miami (John Leguizamo) finds himself getting involved in a story when he saves an accidental hit and run perpetrator from an angry lynch mob. The imprisoned perpetrator Vinicio Cepeda (Damián Alcázar) reveals to Manolo that he may have information about the killer’s identity, starting a chain of events that will affect both of them.

You can do a lot worse than to have Mexico’s top directors Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro shepherding your project to fruition, but Ecuador’s Sebastián Cordero certainly has that on his side for his second film Cronicas. Fortunately, the movie is well worth the big name backing, since he has taken a simple premise of a reporter tracking down a serial killer and turned it into something far different and more intelligent then what might be expected.

As the film opens, bible salesman Vinicio Cepeda is bathing in a lake before bleaching his clothes in a small tub. A few hours later, he’s driving through the streets of Babahayo on the day of the funeral for a group of young victims found in a mass grave after being raped and murdered by a serial killer. By chance, Vinicio accidentally hits the twin brother of one of the murdered boys with his truck, causing the mob gathered for the funeral to turn ugly. Manolo Badilla, a reporter covering the story of the murders, steps in and saves Vinicio from the lynch mob, creating a bond between the two men. Imprisoned for the crime and tormented by the dead boys’ father, Vinicio offers Badilla information on “the Monster” in return for his story being told in hopes of being released to be with his pregnant wife and son.

With literally dozens of serial killer movies following in the footsteps of The Silence of the Lambs, Cordero throws the rule book out, making a film that is more of a psychological drama then a thriller. There’s none of the usual hyperbole of showing the killings or even really seeing the victims’ bodies. It’s more about how the crimes affect the families and community, as well as getting into how the media exploits the situation to find better stories. Overall, the tone is rather grim, but handled in a rather clever manner, making all of the characters multi-layered in their motives. Because nothing is ever completely black or white, you can appreciate the complexities involved with telling the story.

What makes Cronicas so memorable though is the way that Manolo and Vinicio use and manipulate each other to try to get what they want. As you listen to their frequent conversations, you think you know what is going on, because Vinicio is obviously the serial killer, right? Manolo certainly thinks so, and he’s driven to find proof so that he can turn this simple story about a man falsely imprisoned for an accidental hit and run into the biggest story of his career. It seems far too easy. You assume that the earlier scene at the lake was a red herring and that Cordero will throw a twist that disproves the most obvious of theories. Indeed, the movie does have a twist, but it’s not the one you’re expecting. Instead, it leads to a conclusion that is a great impetus for many conversations about what happened and who is to blame.

There’s little doubt that this is Leguizamo’s strongest role and best performance since Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. It’s great seeing him do more with his acting chops then playing comic relief. Manolo Bonilla is an exceedingly rich character, trying to balance his own personal ethics and his desire to get the story of a lifetime. He’s not the nicest or most honest character, almost an anti-hero in that sense, but you really believe that there are reporters like him out there. His interactions with Vinicio, as well as his conflict with local police captain who doesn’t like his methods, constantly leaves you wondering what he will do next, which makes him that much more interesting. Damián Alcázar’s performance as Vinicio equals the intensity of Kevin Spacey in Se7en, while Leonor Watling is also quite good as Bonilla’s producer Marisa, who tries to prevent him from making a big mistake.

The film’s Ecuadorian setting makes everything seem much more real, like you’re watching a documentary or a news story, which may have been Cordero’s original intention. In many ways, it does what John Boorman’s In My Country failed to do, raising many questions about how the media gets involved in finding stories and how much responsibility they should take towards their subjects.

That’s not to say that the movie is perfect. The movie’s pacing is its biggest problem, hitting huge slow moments, particularly in the interviews between Manolo and Vinicio. Although the story is well-executed, the dialogue itself is rather bland, and it’s annoying that Leguizamo jumps back and forth between Spanish and Engish for no particular reason. No one else in the film speaks English–he’s in a Spanish speaking country after all–so one wonders why he would switch to English for certain lines. It’s a minor quibble but distracting enough to take away from some scenes.

The Bottom Line:
If you don’t need a lot of action and excitement to appreciate a well told story, then Cronicas certainly will get you thinking, as well as give you a first-hand look at how a series events can affect different people in different ways.

Cronicas opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.