Whisky is a rather odd film. It is a film of two halves, and even if those two halves are not so different, there is a subtle shift in tone that is creating a bit of a gap. I am not sure if the fault is in the writing or in the directing, but since the two directors, Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, also wrote the script (together with Gonzalo Delgado), this question is of secondary importance.
Notably, the film has an extremely slow pace. This is a story in which – on the surface – nothing much is happening. A listless and monotonous opening sets the tone for the entire film’s atmosphere.
Jacobo Köller is an old man owning a small back-alley workshop in Montevideo in which two or three women produce men’s socks on outdated machinery.
These socks come in various shades of grey and beige and are symbolic for Jacobo’s life and his environment. Marta, his right-hand-woman at the sock manufacture, seems equally drained of life. Like Jacobo she never smiles, and like him she seems to expect nothing from life – although her walkman and her visits to the cinema indicate that she is looking for ways to escape the monotony. The relationship between these two people is based on a strict workplace routine and as little conversation as possible. The film does a very good job at transporting the monotony and the routine. Jacobo’s old and unreliable car is one important element in this.
Jacobo’s flat is a mirror of his soul. He takes absolutely no pride in his home, and even one year after his mother’s death her wheelchair and oxygen bottle are still standing around where she left them.
As the first anniversary of his mother’s death approaches, Jacobo is planning to have a headstone unveiling ceremony (mazewa) on that day, in line with Jewish tradition. It seems, however, that Jacobo has told a lie or two about being married, so with his brother due to arrive from Brazil, Marta moves in with Jacobo and pretends to be his wife.
Much time is devoted to illustrate the monotony and repetition of Jacobo’s working days. And much is made of the general awkwardness Jacobo and Marta experience when they try and live together and deal with each other.
In portraying the peculiarities (and monotony) of everyday life and the absurdities of the specific circumstances Jacobo and Marta find themselves in, the first act of Whisky reminded me a lot of Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. But since I did not like the latter (see my review of Dos Disparos), I have to stress that these first 30 minutes of Whisky are much better at this than A Pigeon…, and more enjoyable.
If Jacobo’s relationship with Marta seems awkward, his relationship with his brother Herman is outright uncomfortable. So when Herman arrives, the awkward relationship between Marta and Jacobo is compounded by the presence of Herman, and while the latter is very talkative, it is Jacobo’s silence that is deafening.
Up to this point, the film is tonally consistent. And it would make for great entertainment, and a great character study, if the filmmakers had trusted their own premise and kept that little microcosm intact.
But after 51 minutes – which is roughly the half-way-point of the film’s running time – the three protagonists travel to the Uruguayan resort town of Piriapolis, where Herman and Jacobo used to spend time as children. While the hotel is rather nice, the town itself is rather dismal. It is clearly the off-season, and everything feels empty and abandoned. It seems that the three characters do not really know what to do with themselves once they are there, but the feeling starts to creep in that it actually are the filkmmakers who do not know what to do with their protagonists.
It is here where I located the subtle yet significant shift in tone. The monotony of Jacobo’s and Marta’s working days may have been mind-numbing (for both them and the audience), but it also is to a certain degree comforting. By contrast, the monotony of this deserted sea-side resort and the sad state of the various entertainment and leisure venues is rather depressing. As I said, the shift in tone is not that big – but while the film’s portrayal of life seemed mostly absurdly comical in the first half, it now tips over into being rather dark, for me at least. There are still a few funny moments and situations here, but that is not enough to outweigh the depressing environment. Also, the relationship between Marta and Jacobo seems to change from the awkward arrangement of the first act into a state of cold indifference.
Apart from the tonal shift, it is – as I have just pointed out – also entirely unclear why this whole new location was needed. It adds nothing, but drags out the plot. The film is only 94 minutes long, but because of its very slow pace it feels much longer. And the Piriapolis scenes contribute heavily to this feeling of watching a film that is way too long for its own good.
If the action had stayed in Montevideo (with the entire Piriapolis half scrapped and a different ending added) and focused on the absurd charade and its consequences, the film would have ended up at an odd medium length of around 60 minutes, but it would have felt perfect.
The acting by the three leads (Andrés Pazos, Mirella Pascual, and Jorge Bolani) is very good. The film also uses its locations and environments very well and there is no denying the fact that the filmmakers have an exceptional talent for creating an atmosphere, for making every little detail come together in creating a whole, from Jacobo’s rather depressing brown car and his dusty, stuffy flat, to the grey factory and the beige socks. The filmmakers also have to be commended for being very courageous with the amount of things that remain unspoken and the amount of things that may or may not be happening between scenes or underneath the surface of the story we see on screen.
In the end, however, this film – which collected a fair number of awards across the globe – did not work for me. If I were to judge the first half of the film on its own, I could easily give it 8 out of 10 stars, or even more. The entire film, as it stands, feels more like a 6.
Nevertheless, this is an interesting film that is worth checking out. But you need to be prepared for the extremely slow pace, and the fact that the film has neither a plot nor any visibly character development – this is mostly an atmosphere-driven film.