Nick Brady: Paradise Lost does not have the ring of Escobar: Paradise Lost, but then again Nick Brady does not have the charisma of Pablo Escobar.
But Nick Brady serves a purpose in movies like Andrea Di Stefano’s Escobar. He’s our everyman. Our stranger in a strange land. Our innocent guide into the foreign and deadly world of the most notorious cocaine kingpin the world has ever seen. He’s also a foreigner to Colombia, the people and the movie’s plot.
Nick (Josh Hutcherson) is a Canadian surfer who ends up Colombia in 1983. He falls in love with Maria (Claudia Traisac), a confident young woman who points to a billboard with a picture of a menacing face and says that’s her uncle. Uncle Pablo seems nice enough, and he’s some kind of politician. When Nick and Maria attend a lavish party, Nick asks how Uncle Pablo made his fortunes. Maria doesn’t miss a beat, and her smile never fades: “Cocaine.”
What transpires next is mostly predictable, but altogether fascinating. Nick is so smitten by Maria that he barely notices himself sinking deeper into Pablo’s clutches of money and extravagance. The hacienda where the Escobar keeps his family is paradise: pools, elephants and other exotics animals, life-size fiberglass statues of dinosaurs in the pastures. At one point we see Pablo dusting his prize keepsake: the car that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in.
The real draw here is Pablo Escobar, played with psychotic finesse by Benecio del Toro. He’s a lovable kind of kingpin. Oafish, domineering, dispensing sage advice in ways that disarm his intimidating 1,000-yard stare. He’s made even more terrifying as he struts around with his wireless briefcase phone, Cosby sweaters and, hilariously, a green corduroy Boston Celtics cap. If you admired Steven Soderbergh’s Che and the great lengths del Toro went to craft that complex character than you will likely be disappointed that this film doesn’t quite reach that level of storytelling. His Pablo is marvelous to watch, but he doesn’t have much arc. He begins the film as Uncle Pablo, and then one day, on the eve of a prison term, he decides to kill everyone, including two infants—two infants too many for this kind of movie. There is no nuance in his monstrosity. And the fact the he would spend so much time doting on and then ultimately trying to kill Nick, seems laughably pointless. A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo.
That is the peril of these types of movies, these pictures about famous people and their sidekicks, assistants or secretaries: the film can’t sustain itself on the Nick Brady’s of the world, and there’s never enough time to develop the Pablos. It happened in The Last King of Scotland, in which a doctor found himself in the inner circle of Idi Amin, and in The Devil’s Double, in which a body double is roped into Uday Hussein’s twisted universe, and it happens here in Escobar. Hutcherson does what he can, and del Toro hits it out of the park, but they don’t have much to work with because their characters are on different trajectories.
Di Stefano does do a commendable job holding these trajectories as best he can, and the film has a unique look and feel to it, although I found the drifting focus and handheld shots to be frequently annoying. He structures the movie out of sequence, and it works really well, especially since the flashbacks and flash forwards don’t tip off the plot points any more than they should. The first half of the film is largely a romance and psychological drama, but it quickly becomes a terrifying narco-thriller as Nick is sent on a mission to bury Pablo’s treasure. It’s a jarring acceleration, and doesn’t altogether work, but the scenes are well executed and appropriately nailbiting.
I did find it very hard to believe, though, that Pablo Escobar would ask his niece’s Canadian surfer boyfriend to drive his loot up into the mountains and then have to commit murder to hide it all. And Nick, apparently out of inexhaustible fear, goes along with it to a point. Let me repeat an earlier sentence here: A country full of Colombians and we spend the whole movie with the lone gringo.
Listen, I’m fond of what this movie does, and what it attempts to do, with Pablo Escobar, who might be one of the greatest villains of the late 20th century. But Paradise Lost doesn’t go far enough. Pablo needs to run, as fast as he can, away from Nick until he finds himself in his own movie.