Review: Caja Negra (Black Box)

Showing at the Starz Denver Film Festival, I was sent a screener of the curious film Caja Negra (Black Box), a short (80minute) Mexican thriller, directed by Ariel Gordon. In Spanish with English subtitles, it’s almost two completely different films spliced together, but in a very interesting manner.

The film starts out with an animated sequence that explains the widespread corruption in Mexico, focused specifically on manipulation of the stock market to enable the low cost acquisition of a Mexican mining company. Then a slick narrative device introduces us to the main story, surveillance footage assembled into a cat and mouse game between dying loser Juan (Hernán Mendoza) and an agent of a shadowy syndicate Emiliano (Juan Carlos Remolina). The setup?  That Emiliano can erase all of Juan’s debts and set his family up for the future – including a lovely little house – if Juan will assassinate a well-known former presidential candidate.

caja negra still
Juan (Mendoza) pulls a gun on Emiliano (Remolina), who encourages him to pull the trigger.

This is the same basic moral dilemma as the recent Cameron Diaz movie The Box, but with a considerably more thoughtful approach. The caja negra of the title refers to the recording device that’s used in airplanes to analyze the events leading up to an accident or crash, and the entire central portion of the movie, presented as roughly edited surveillance camera footage, serves the same narrative purpose.
What makes Caja Negra so interesting isn’t the animated introduction or Emiliano’s back story about being kicked out of the Stanford PhD program and coming back to Mexico in shame, just to be pulled into the syndicate, but how Juan and Emiliano play each other as the situation unfolds. Shot primarily in an abandoned warehouse, we see them studying video footage of the target and Juan walking up to a mannequin and shooting it repeatedly in the liver because “we need some time for the media campaign.”
Back and forth, Juan threatens Emiliano and refuses to do the job, and Emiliano reminds Juan that the power dynamic of the situation is not with Juan at all, and that “you forget I can kill your wife and children at any time. is that really what you want?”
This is exactly the kind of smart film I hope to see at a film festival, actually. Thoughtful, visually interesting, paced very differently than a Hollywood blockbuster, and unlikely to get wide distribution in the US, alas. If you have a chance and aren’t suffering from MADD (movie attention deficit disorder, where you need to have an action scene every 90 seconds), Caja Negra is well worth your time.

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