It’s easy — perhaps too easy — to label as a philistine anyone who complains that a film’s characters aren’t likable. Usually, those complaints don’t occur when a filmmaker is trying to create sympathy for a character, but merely creating a fully fleshed-out existence for them. Andrés Wood’s historical thriller Spider is a challenge even to those who claim not to mind unlikable characters. Every significant character in the film is a fascistic villain of varying degrees, yet Wood allows them to have their own hopes and desires and loves while condemning them at every possible moment. It’s a chilling and largely successful look into the minds of the right-wing hordes that terrorized Chile up to the coup d’état against the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, ushering in the 17-year military junta led by Augusto Pinochet.
The film operates in two timelines, one in the early 1970s and one in the present day. The film opens on the present as a man snatches a woman’s purse, only to be chased down in a car by an old man with a weathered Neil Hamburger vibe (Marcelo Alonso). The purse snatcher thinks he’s safe on the sidewalk until the old man takes a hard left and smashes into a concrete wall, instantly killing the criminal as his lower half is ground into a bloody pulp. Police investigating the incident find a large automatic weapon in the man’s trunk, suggesting that his act of vigilantism is something far darker.
Back in the ‘70s, we see the seeds of that old man. His name is Gerardo (Pedro Fontaine), and he’s a former soldier who was kicked out of the military for his spitfire temper. Two wealthy right-wingers, Inés (an excellent María Valverde) and her obnoxious husband, Justo (Gabriel Urzúa), recruit him into a real-life nationalist group seeking to overthrow Allende and murder — or at least terrorize into silence — Chile’s communists and left-wingers. (The title Spider refers to the way that Justo refers to the fascists as the legs of a spider working to oust the president. Their choice of such a repulsive metaphor suggests that they consider themselves the villains in their own story.)
Inés, fed up with her impotent husband, begins an affair with Gerardo. Though they’re objectively evil people who delight at the idea of murdering innocent people with opposing political views, Wood doesn’t downplay their passionate love at all. They may be psychopaths in their professional lives, but we have to contend with the idea that such despicable people could also have loving inner lives. Gerardo ultimately volunteers to be a “martyr” for the movement, where he pretends to have been murdered by leftists. Later, he returns in secret at Inés and Justo’s bequest to assassinate a key government aide before being forced into a decades-long exile again.
In the present day, Inés and Justo (now played by La Ciénega’s Mercedes Morán and Felipe Armas) are even wealthier and hold prominent positions in society as a newspaper opinion columnist and a top lawyer, respectively. Their participation in the terrorist incidents that led up to the military junta has been forgotten, but Gerardo’s reappearance and arrest threaten to out them as former fascists. Justo is too drunk to be of any use, but a calculating Inés uses all her influence to try to get Gerardo locked up in a mental institution before he can say any more about their past connection.
Wood’s ‘70s-set thriller has much in common with the dark political thrillers that animated that age, but those films at least had protagonists the audience could identify with. By focusing on characters with souls as black as pitch, he forces the audience to consider the present political situations of countries across the globe. There wasn’t a happy ending after waves of extra-judicial violence in Chile in the 1970s, and there may not be a happy ending now. He also draws a straight line between the fascists of the ‘70s and anti-immigrant, anti-refugee figures of today. Most chilling about Spider is that it doesn’t even work as a cautionary tale. The kinds of political violence Wood is warning about are already happening. It’s too late, he seems to be saying, so now we may just have to ride out the consequences. It’s not a comforting vision, but it is one that’s impossible to look away from.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15