Hierro begins in fine style with a terrifying car accident as a mother drives her car off a cliff while trying to secure her young son’s seatbelt. Upon waking the next morning, unable to move amid the wreckage, she discovers that the boy is missing. Urgency, danger and excitement are promised in this prologue, but our expectations are only partially fulfilled. It’s not that Gabe Ibanez’s films is a bad one – it’s actually very well made – but it’s very familiar, trading on scenes and images which seem to anthologise previous movies rather than produce anything particularly original.
The title refers to El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands, distinctive for its particularly mountainous landscape and rocky beaches. It is here that marine biologist Maria (Anaya) intends to take her son Diego for a holiday. But during the ferry crossing, Diego vanishes and cannot be found, despite Maria’s increasingly desperate attempts to find him. These early scenes are very effective, creating a real sense of a single mother’s panic at the thought of losing the one thing that matters most to her. But even here, one’s feeling that all is not well with the film are becoming aroused. It seems all too similar to other films for comfort – this basic plot has been used time and again, recently in Flightplan - and the alert viewer will be particularly aware that a lost child was a key theme in The Orphanage, a film from the same stable which is quite similar in feel to this one.
Throughout the film, a nagging feeling that this has all been done before never quite goes away and as we get towards the end and the old point-of-view plot twist is pressed into service, it’s difficult not to stifle a yawn. Whether this sort of twist is a blatant cheat or simply a clever manipulation of the viewer’s assumptions is a moot point. When I saw it in, for example, Haute Tension, I was willing to be persuaded of the latter argument. As time goes on, and it’s used time and again, I start to think it’s nothing more than a slightly cheap trick to put the viewer off balance. Ibanez and screenwriter Javier Gullon keep us guessing with hints at some kind of island-wide conspiracy but this is no less familiar territory – the hotel concierge has the same sort of sinister courtliness as his opposite number in the Hostel films and the notion of sinister islanders has been done to death many times in the years before and since The Wicker Man.
End of Spoilers
What is unusual however, and particularly striking, is the look of the film. Ibanez and his cinematographer Alejandro Martinez have suffused their movie with hues of blue and grey, reflecting the recurring theme of water which is so significant. From the walls of their heroine’s bathroom to the colour scheme of the ferry’s interior, the predominant colours are so insistent that it’s quite a shock when we see the yellow of the deck or the bright colours of a sunlit morning in a caravan park. This, along with the insistent aquatic imagery, goes a long way towards making the film a damn sight more watchable than it really should be and should be counted as something of an achievement, particularly for a first time director more used to commercials. To be fair, Ibanez also manages to ratchet up some tension in the use of dilapidated caravans as places of potential terror and there are nicely observed bits of residual creepiness.
Although Hierro seems to have been marketed as a horror film, it’s not particularly scary in comparison to the deeply sinister The Orphanage. The tone is largely poignant, centred around the figure of the distraught mother, beautifully played by the talented Elena Anaya. Her performance is so affecting and convincing that it – along with the emotional truth of the film - seems somehow cheapened by the revelations in the final reel. Perhaps Gabe Ibanez should, in his next venture, concentrate on this finely wrought tone and less on plot contrivances which end up doing little apart from annoying the viewer.
Hierro was shot on HD video and the transfer – AVC/MPEG4 - is generally good. The darker scenes consistently exhibit a considerable amount of noise – more than one would expect - but the daylight scenes are crisp and generally gorgeous to behold. The cinematography is often somewhat soft and the colours are subdued, as discussed in the review, but the level of detail is strong and the blacks are suitably inky. Skin tones switch between natural and a little too bland. On the whole, however, this is a pleasantly film-like experience.
There are two audio options, both in Spanish. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is more than acceptable with music and ambient effects stretching around the channels to create a memorably enveloping effect. Hierro is a low-key film and so is the soundtrack, although the music occasionally crashes into action, not always at the most appropriate time. Dialogue is clear and well balanced throughout the mix. The LPCM 2.0 track isn’t quite as involving but remains very pleasing. Removable English subtitles are available.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer which manages to give a completely inaccurate idea of what the film is like.
Hierro is a frustrating viewing experience at times but is worth watching for the excellence of the central performance, the visual style and the well sustained tone. This Blu-Ray release is a good way of catching up with it.