The Squad Review

Coming from Colombia, The Squad is a strange hybrid of genre.  If the producers were pitching it to an American studio, they’d pitch it as Elite Squad meets [REC] meets Apocalypse Now meets Cabin Fever.  Part mystery movie, part atmospheric horror film, and part military “last man standing” story, the biggest problem The Squad has is it can’t decide which movie it most wants to be like.  Don’t get me wrong, the film is incredibly well made, with some amazing camera work, great cinematography, powerful performances from a few of its cast members, and atmospheric swagger for days on end.

However, these pieces that are well done never amount to a whole story.  The film follows a Colombian military squad on a mission to back up their brothers in arms who have been fighting guerrilla forces in the armed conflict that has been going on since 1964, initially over politics and drugs, which has these days deteriorated to a state of civil war with no possible end in sight.  These men live in hell on a daily basis, but because of their strong sense of brotherhood, they fight fearlessly day in and day out.  So when they approach a hill that may hold a dangerous conflict, their Sargent orders them to wait for back up, which they learn will be a while since two bridges have been blown by the guerrillas, slowing the approach of their back up.

However, one soldier’s impulsive rush of the bunker they have come upon leads the whole team up the hill without their back up.  We later learn his motivations, but in the grand scheme of the story, it doesn’t really matter.  The squad has made a mistake, and once they’ve made it, they can’t go back.  A fairly common contrivance leads to their staying in the bunker, where they find the remnants of a fierce fight of some kind, as evidenced by the blood and general disarray of the bunker.  However, they can’t find any bodies, and the bunker is littered with weapons.  This rules out a guerrilla attack, as the guerrillas would have surely taken the weapons for themselves.

Everything begins to get weirder when they find a woman hidden behind a freshly built wall that is guarded by charms, believed by the locals to be a form of magic that will ward off evil.  When they encounter the woman, everything begins to go wrong, and each one of soldiers in the squad quickly deteriorates mentally.

From here, the story becomes less about the outside forces that may have caused the deaths of the previous soldiers to inhabit the bunker, and more about the soldiers turning on one another under the threat of perceived danger.  The woman disappears, and the Sargent is dead, leaving only a handful of the soldiers left to wonder who is really causing them harm.  The audience mostly follows Ponce (Juan Pablo Barragan), who is kind of like the little brother of the squad.  Everyone looks out for him, but no one cares more than Cortez (Alejandro Aguilar) who has adopted him as his own best buddy.

When things go to shit (and they quickly do), Cortez vows to keep Ponce safe so he can return to his wife and child.  However, Cortez never suspects that he might be Ponce’s ultimate downfall, and the rest of the runtime follows their communal descent into madness.  The final shot of the film is a quick “What the fuck!?” moment designed to remind you that everything you just saw may not be what it seems, but in the grand scheme of the film, it doesn’t matter.  That makes me ask the question, why even put it there?

This type of ending means that the writers and director weren’t confident that they got their point across in the runtime, so they want to keep you guessing.  Some films have an intentional ambiguity that makes the whole experience a great one to revisit in your head long after the movie ends.  In this film though, it makes you wonder what the hell they were actually trying to accomplish with the film.

As I said, the film on the whole is well made, well acted, interesting, intense, and extremely atmospheric.  However, I felt for everything they did right, the few things they did wrong disavowed the rest of the film, robbing the viewer of any fondness they may have thought back on the film with.  The acting is superb, and I’m sure this is just the beginning of a great career for both Alejandro Aguilar and Juan Pablo Barragan, as well as the talented director Jaime Osorio Marquez.  They will all surely do better work one day, but it’s just too bad that in the end, this film doesn’t do enough to make it truly great.  It’s still interesting and effective in a lot of ways, so I do recommend watching it for those into atmospheric horror, and fans of movies about the psychology of soldiers in war, or any people stuck in a demoralizing situation.  In the end though, it’s an unsatisfying experience, full of style, with little grace in the storytelling.  A few minor changes would have turned it into a great horror film, and I suppose that’s the biggest letdown, the realization that it could have been a whole lot better.  Still, by and large, it’s better than a lot of horror films that get released, and a worthy entry into Colombia’s growing film industry.  Worth a rental when it hits stateside video outlets, but I won’t be super upset when it doesn’t get a wide theatrical release.

8.6/10

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