Six years after becoming the first Latin American to win the Venice Film Festival’s top award with his searing debut, From Afar, Lorenzo Vigas returns to the competition with another stealth gut punch. In The Box, the director leaves his native Venezuela for the vast empty landscapes of northwestern Mexico, though his thematic interest in absent fathers and the corresponding hunger to fill that void remains. An acutely observed chamber piece played out by two exceptionally well-cast actors who keep you guessing about the subtle shifts in their characters’ relationship, this is an unflinching account of human lives rendered disposable by greed and corruption.
Like Mexican director Fernanda Valadez’s head-turning 2020 debut, Identifying Features, Vigas’ slow-burn coming-of-age drama builds a potent mystery around human remains, rippling throughout with a subdued undertow of rage and pain. But where Valadez’s howl of despair was fueled by the casualties of undocumented border crossings, The Box draws its sorrow from the dehumanizing supply chain of cheap labor. Michel Franco once again serves as a producer, and Vigas shares some of that filmmaker’s austerity, along with his chokehold of dread.
Shot in the Chihuahua region by frequent Pablo Larraín collaborator Sergio Armstrong on 35mm anamorphic, the film masterfully presents a moving human drama — one of countless such stories of families shattered by the combustible union of poverty and crime — against a badlands backdrop of sprawling plains and rugged mountains.
Orphaned young teenager Hatzín (Hatzín Navarrete), who lives in Mexico City with his grandmother, is first seen obsessively kicking the walls of a train restroom stall as he travels alone to the remote site of a recently discovered communal grave. His father, Esteban, is believed to be one of at least 50 bodies exhumed there. After providing the required documentation and signing the paperwork, Hatzín is handed an identification card found with the body, along with a rectangular metal box, roughly two feet in length, containing his father’s remains. Other families are heard weeping at the grim finality of this process, but Hatzín remains impassive, reassuring his grandmother over the phone that he’s OK.
As he begins the return journey the next day, Hatzín glimpses a man through the bus window on the street of a nearby town who looks remarkably like his father’s ID photo. But when he gets off the bus and approaches him, the burly stranger introduces himself as Mario Enderle (Hernán Mendoza), telling the kid he has the wrong guy. Hatzín is unconvinced, however, returning the box and saying there’s been an error. He starts stalking Mario, who initially shows him kindness before growing frustrated and impatient, driving the boy to a stop outside town on the Mexico City bus route in an attempt to get rid of him. But Hatzín’s determination wears down Mario’s resistance.
Mario is a labor supplier to local factories, recruiting workers by the busload who have the strength, as well as the desperation, to endure punishing long sweatshop hours in a manufacturing sector competing with China. Hatzín starts accompanying him on his rounds, observing Mario as a good-humored man who presents a caring front, providing free coats to the workers for protection against the cold desert nights. While the boy pitches in with physical work, his education soon comes in handy as Mario entrusts him with documenting the number of hires and checking that factory payments are in order.
When Mario is tasked with providing 1,500 workers for a new factory, Hatzín becomes an indispensable member of his crew. While the subject of paternity is dropped for some time, Mario reveals that he was working as a foreman and saw an opportunity to carve out a more lucrative line of business. He also has acquired a warehouse where he plans to open his own factory.
Continuing to telephone his grandmother but withholding the truth from her about why he’s not returning, Hatzín eventually moves in with Mario and his pregnant wife (Cristina Zulueta). But a festering conflict grows within the impressionable adolescent as he responds, on the one hand, to a paternal influence he’s clearly been missing in his life, while, on the other, he becomes troubled by blatant illegalities. Hatzín is expected to participate in activities that go far beyond a moral gray area into outright crime and violence, but Mario brushes off his concerns, encouraging him not to think too much about it.
In his first screen role, Navarrete is riveting, his dark, expressive eyes making Hatzín alert to everything going on around him as shocking discoveries and fresh disclosures late in the film force him to question just how much he’s willing to accept in order to have a father figure. One stunning shot, an hour into the movie, in which the audience, along with Hatzín, sees a sweatshop production floor for the first time, speaks volumes. His observation of a young woman (Dulce Alexa Alfaro) asking awkward questions about worker conditions leaves him with more uncertainties.
There are no overt emotional displays in the young actor’s internalized performance, and yet the struggle of a kid still figuring out his identity and value system is profoundly affecting. When Armstrong’s camera is not intently exploring Hatzín’s face, it’s trailing him, Dardenne brothers-style, immersing us completely in his navigation of situations no teenager should ever have to tackle alone.
Mendoza — who was so effective in a role both broken and ultimately brutal in Franco’s tough 2012 drama, After Lucia — is equally compelling as a man of blistering contradictions, a warm, generous spirit in some ways but a calculating operator unencumbered by conventional morality in others.
Like Franco, Vigas uses no score, instead modulating his tone via tightly focused observation — at times surgical and elsewhere cryptic in a pared-down script co-written with Paula Markovitch — of two characters testing each other’s boundaries and constantly recalibrating lines of trust. An understated desolation runs through The Box, which considers the human cost of the industrial labor chain but by implication extends to the countless Latin Americans who disappear in the drug trade, under right-wing regimes and in the extortionate criminal trafficking networks that exploit migrant dreams. Framed as the consuming desire of one teenage boy to know the love of a father, this is a multilayered story that resonates powerfully.