Mexico’s Isaac Ezban is two for two with his exhilarant follow-up to last year’s festival front-runner The Incident, the correspondingly science fiction-y mind-manipulator The Similars. Right out of the gate writer/director Ezban declares a wistful throwback via voiceover to the glory days of televised psychological suspense fare like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.
It’s 1968 and a malign rain descends as the omniscient narrator fills us in on a few delicious details about the desolate bus station backdrop and the seemingly aimless inhabitants therein, brought together by chance or fate or something far more sinister.
What first feels like a grab-bag offering of splashy stock devices — essential ingredients for a chamber piece with diverse inscrutable characters — in short order morphs into a strange community populated with eccentric and eerie underpinnings.
There’s some requisite routine figures often found in such scenarios: Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti) the pained pregnant woman, Ulises (Gustavo Sánchez Parra) the desperate man, and the protective mother (Carmen Beato) with precocious child (Santiago Torres), amongst others. But just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, out goes the proverbial rug.
Ezban’s vision and technical craft adds dimensions to the characters and the chimerical bus station that aren’t necessarily reflected in the occasionally cumbersome dialogue or deliberately apocryphal script. Fuelled and fed by an economical understanding of shots, cuts, reveals, and a well-massed narrative dossier, The Similars imagines a lurid, richly textured work that’s unafraid to take some idiosyncratic service roads on its offbeat journey into the beyond.
There’s an ashen hue over much of the action that recalls different cinematic styles such as film noir, and this is off-set occasionally by glorious visual airs as diverse as Douglas Sirk and The Evil Dead. The expressionistic visuals help form a fatalism that’s essential to the story, which takes some bold and even silly leaps.
At other times spates of off-kilter color fleck the hemmed-in setting, recalling Hitchcock — Vertigo comes to mind with the dolly-in/zoom-out “stretch” technique popularized in that film, here used to fascinating effect — and there’s even a resolution summary scene near the end that winks not just at Hitch but at Ezban’s previous film, too.
With The Similars it’s evident that regard and reverence for genre convention is an intrinsic element (playing spot-the-reference can be fun, too; Looper, Being John Malkovich, Dark Man, Delicatessen, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to name a few) and this unwavering charge asks a fair bit of the audience, but if you acquire such tastes you get a delectable and exceptional dish. As a piece of hocus pocus inscrutability, The Similars is unique, its ambience inmitable, and its revelation, a perverse pleasure.