There’s a difference between having to keep your wits about you when watching a film and it being just plain muddled and confusing. Unfortunately Days of Grace, a Mexican kidnap thriller set against the backdrop of three World Cups, falls into the latter category with a perpetually convoluted narrative that undercuts any sense of power or emotional impact that it may have.
The plot weaves together three separate stories set during the World Cups of 2002, 2006 and 2010 respectively, although you could be forgiven for not being clear on the timelines until well into the movie. It’s told from multiple points of view including a tough cop, one of the hostages, the wife of a hostage and one of the younger kidnappers.
The film starts off with a monologue explaining via a quote from Gabriel García Márquez, that “life is not how you live it but how you tell it.” It’s then followed by a stark scene involving a tough, seemingly abusive cop questioning a couple of kids in a shack in the middle of the desert, before following the cop as he races to the hospital to see his son being born. More than meets the eye, then.
Unfortunately the film gets caught up in these sort of unnecessary surprises, constantly twisting and turning to the point where it becomes perplexing as to what’s actually going on, who’s who and why they’re doing what they’re doing. This would be fine if it explained things down the road but by the time it gets there things are so muddled in this gritty world of perpetual crime and monologues that it becomes hard to care.
The whole thing is bathed in a golden sheen, owing somewhat of a debt to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic because of its (overly) kinetic filmmaking style and grubby visual aesthetic but without the intellect to back it up. There’s a pulsating, almost assaultive musical score from a collaborative effort between Nick Cave, Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Atticus Ross (The Social Network), Shigeru Umebayashi (In the Mood for Love, A Single Man) and Massive Attack. And the performances are universally impressive, particularly from Dolores Heredia as the worried wife and Tenoch Huerta as the no-nonsense cop Lupe, but when so much of the story flashes and folds back in on itself it becomes difficult to pinpoint people among the wreck.
There’s waves of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire to be felt throughout although if this handled the emotional stakes even half as well as that film it’d be more palatable, if not even enjoyable. Instead it’s a grubby and ugly film, brutal at times for sure but infinitely less impactful than you might hope considering the subject matter and visceral filmmaking style.