If the title of Pablo Trapero’s romance Carancho (“vulture”) weren’t enough to pigeonhole Ricardo Darín’s personal-injury lawyer, an early scene shows him arriving at the scene of a car accident and following the paramedics back to the hospital. He isn’t exactly an ambulance-chaser, since in the thoroughly corrupt world the film depicts, EMTs and shysters are in cahoots, profiting off Argentina’s epidemic level of traffic fatalities. (Exactly why Porteños are so likely to run each other down is never explained.) When an accident can’t be found, they create one themselves, pre-injuring the alleged victim with a blunt instrument to max out the insurance settlement.
Incoming paramedic Martina Gusman is unaware of the scams, or else she’s too busy shooting painkillers between her toes to take notice. So there’s no reason for her not to fall into bed with Darín, excepting the fact that some of her patients have had their bones (willingly) broken by him, and that the shady types he owes money are about to send him to the E.R. as well.
With an outline like that, it would be easy for Carancho to be relentlessly, even comically dour, and there are moments when the characters’ downward spiral gets to be a bit much. But Darín (Nine Queens, The Secret In Their Eyes) is an exceptionally soulful actor who manages to reconcile the contradictions inherent in a man who’s been forcibly thrust into a violent world, yet seems strangely at home in it. Gusman’s part is less textured, but she finds nuances in her virtuous junkie, whose embrace of hard drugs is at least partly voluntary.
If anyone’s likely to have trouble with Carancho, it’s fans of Trapero’s previous films, who won’t be able to help noticing the sizeable step he’s taken toward conventionality. Particularly as the film develops into a thriller, with the couple plotting an exit strategy to free Darín from his loan sharks once and for all, the lyricism of Crane World and El Bonaerense seems light-years away. But even when tackling more mainstream fare, Trapero does it with integrity, and the film’s shocking conclusion suggests that his bid for accessibility may have just been an elaborate long con, a ploy to make his audience drop their guard before slamming on the brakes.