As a film critic, I live by the words of Roger Ebert, “It is not what a film is about, it is about how it’s about”. These are the words I think of whenever I see a movie or write a review. With The Sentimental Engine Slayer it’s definitely the latter. This is probably the most daring film I’ve seen so far during the Tribeca Film Festival. It is an interesting voyage, a bizarre fantasy. Filmmaker and musician, Omar Rodriguez Lopez (At The Drive-In & The Mars Volta) has ventured into the absurd with his new film.
The movie is set in the small border town of El Paso, Texas and follows the life of Barlam. Barlam is a naive and meek grocery store bagger who spends his free time assembling small model cars of 67′ Mercury Cougars. He lives with his sister Natalia and her clueless boyfriend, Zack. Barlam is conflicted when he decides to search for his estranged mother, he spends most of the film interviewing young boys that look like him in the hope they might have the same mother. Simple enough to follow, right? Wrong. The journey of this young man gets sidetracked with a small time pimp and his ladies, his demented grocery store boss and a botched drug deal that leads to the murder of a cross dressing male prostitute.
The film is an experience to say the least. Thematically, it follows in the footsteps of David Lynch and Vincent Gallo. A narrative (I use this word in a very loose manner) that bounces back and forth when its timeline and moments that make you question this world and the moments that just followed. In this way, the film is preposterous. Tonally, it follows in the footsteps of Jonas Ã…kerlund and Gaspar Noé, bombarding you with quick hyper-editing and lighting, with loud, piercing and thumping ambient music cues and shocking imagery that I didn’t feel pushed its audience enough.
In that regard, The Sentimental Engine Slayer fails to accomplish what it sets out to do. Not taking its notion of shock for shock sake to its next logical conclusion is simply obnoxious. Forcing the audience to accept these images and not heighten or push them further leaves one to wonder why even bother creating a film in this manner. To me, Omar Rodriguez Lopez didn’t take enough risks with this film. He brings us to the border and never brings us across and by not doing so we are left in a small town in Texas, bored, bewildered and resentful for the journey.
Although this is the most daring film I’ve seen at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, it was also a film I hated because of the limits of its storytelling. Someone asked me after the screening how I felt about the movie, I said “I hated it! But I would definitely see it again”.