The Mexican crime epic Days of Grace comes with an opening title informing us that it won an award back in 2011. 2011! Why has it taken so long for a film this assured, this bloody and intense, to come to the U.S.? Maybe it’s the soccer angle: Director Everardo Gout’s time-hopping debut feature uses a succession of three World Cups as a structuring element; another opening title tells us that “days of grace” refers to the period every four years when, thanks to the World Cup, crime in Mexico declines precipitously. Or maybe it’s that the film, unlike so much genre fare nowadays, demands that we pay attention. This isn’t one of those crime flicks where you can switch your brain off. In Days of Grace, both God and the devil are in the details.
The story is loosely based on three different kidnapping cases in Mexico — in 2002, 2006, and 2010 — and the narrative jumps, sometimes very subtly, between them. Usually, we can identify the period by the film’s shifting aspect ratio, and references on radio and TV to World Cup games and locales. In each section, the narrative focuses on a different dynamic in the kidnapping. In 2002, we see a dedicated young lawman and new father get drawn into a group of cops who trample the laws to hunt down kidnappers. (“The rules are useless!” yells one of them. “Rules are for referees!” As you might expect, sporting metaphors abound.) In 2006, we follow the relationship between a blindfolded captive and one of his young kidnappers. In 2010, we watch the family of a different man who has been kidnapped, as they learn some troubling truths about their patriarch.
Director Gout has a mastery of the frame that serves his intricate story well — his highly stylized, kinetic camerawork varies between individual narrative strands. (The tale of the captive at times feels like it was shot through a kaleidoscope, as he tries to glimpse his kidnappers through his blindfold; the story of the cop, meanwhile, could be a first-person shooter, with the camera often following in fluid, frantic long takes as he makes his way through underworld spaces.) The editing is also exact, and thrilling. The film cuts between these time periods as if they were all different perspectives on the same story: We watch the seemingly heroic cop in 2002; then we watch the seemingly innocent captive in 2006; then we see the captive’s seemingly devoted family in 2010; and they all seem to be commenting on each other.
They are, but not always in the ways that we might expect. What seems is not always what is. And Gout loves toying with us, letting meaningless details echo across the years: A doorbell rings in 2002; someone answers the door in 2006. But those meaningless details come back later in surprising ways. A casual bit of conversation in 2002 can inform a whole series of actions in 2006, or 2010. Turn your eyes away for a few seconds and you’ll miss something crucial.
Days of Grace is strong, brutal, despairing stuff. It’s also somewhat anticlimactic, by design. As these three stories converge, we might expect a great revelation, a final blast of we’re-all-connectedness to bring the film poetic closure. It doesn’t really come. Or rather, it doesn’t quite come in the way that we had anticipated. Most films that fracture their narrative in this manner wait until the end to reveal their connections. Gout does the opposite: He shows us the connections, then reveals the ways in which these stories are different. It’s one last bold choice, in a film that’s filled with them.