‘Day Release’ (‘Tercer Grado’): Film Review

A lean, low-budget redemption drama about one dizzying day in the life of a day-release jailbird.

The damaged hero of Day Release is lean, quick-thinking, hard-punching and often drenched in blood, and much the same can be said of his film. Geoffrey Cowper’s debut (he’s Barcelona-born despite the name), a stripped-back, quickfire redemption drama about 24 hours in the life of a jailbird, is efficient and often striking in its canny deployment of well-tested motifs over its first half, but its efforts to shift up a further gear leave its final stretch looking rushed.

But in a year in which Spanish thrillers have been thin on the ground, Release — which has been generating good buzz on the US indie festival circuit, but which criminally so far lacks a distribution deal at home — is a standout.

The Bottom Line

Minimum resources, maximum impact.

Heavily bearded and soulful-eyed, Mark Rodriguez (Jesus Lloveras) awakes under a bitter sun in his dirty, beat-up Volkwagen GTI — not a hero’s car — with stripper Mia (Sara Casasnovas) in the rear seat. He treats her like dirt for a while before paying a visit to his brother Toni (Javier Beltran), who tells Mark that their house is about to be repossessed (a big theme in a Spain still suffering the consequence of economic crisis) and throws Mark out.

In a nearby town, Mark observes the heist of a security van (the script is based on a similar event which took place in Catalonia in 2002) and the shooting of two security guards by a pair of French thugs (Frank Feys and Miko Jarry). Spotting his chance for a haul, Mark gives chase to the thieves, puncturing their tires in a gas station so he can ‘help them out’ when he sees them break down, in the film’s most tremblingly tense scene.

Day Release lacks the new twists and flamboyance which might have lifted it into the extraordinary. The script sets itself a series of straightforward tasks, but fulfills them with taut elegance, aided by Pau Morell’s skillful editing. Does a car have to trail another car? Let’s draw the chase out right to breaking point. Does a woman have to tend to a man’s wounds? Let’s make those wounds the bloodiest and most painful we can (the close ups of Mark’s bloodied back are gruelingly detailed).

But over the last twenty minutes things become absurd. The neat twist that the wit of the earlier scenes has been suggesting must surely come never in fact arrives. It’s all good, high octane stuff, but the resolution of the plot is simply becomes a question of who can punch the hardest.

Mark starts out moody and unreconstructedly macho, but this image starts to crack when he meets his brother and breaks up completely when, blood-drenched and alone on a highway, he has to call Mia for help. Mark’s backstory, which defines his entire arc, will come out in a hotel room confession.

Lloveras charts these changes with a brooding, understated intensity that’s generally compelling. Casasnovas is a good counterpoint as the seen-it-all stripper with a heart of gold -— but if that sounds cliched, then it is, and the script does little to help the actress escape it. Essentially, as she tenderly dabs Mark’s wounds and shaves off his beard to reveal the tender-hearted man beneath all the facial hair, she’s a romantic interest and little more.

Gil Ventura and art director Guille F. Santana have done fine work in reconceiving Catalonia as a noirish badlands where the action unfolds in dirty bars, gas stations, cheap hotel rooms and on bright, sun-baked back roads. Dani Trujillo’s score is best when it’s just a strummed electric guitar, less successful when it goes derivative orchestral. And there’s good news for the future, given how rough the cinematic times in Spain currently are: the average age of the crew of Day Release was just 24.

Production company: Breaking Pictures

Cast: Jesus Lloveras, Sara Casasnovas, Javier Beltran, Frank Feys, Miko Jarry

Director: Geoffrey Cowper

Screenwriters: Geoffrey Cowper, Jesus Lloveras

Producers: Jesus Mora Mas

Executive producer: Kim DeVenne

Director of photography: Gil Ventura

Production designer: Guille F. Santana

Costume designer: Cora Beas

Editor: Pau Morell

Composer: Dani Trujillo

Casting director: Luci Lenox

Sales: Artist View Entertainment

80 minutes