Dark Blood is the latest film from Colombian director Harold Trompetero and sees him reunite with lead actor John Leguizamo, having previously worked together on the comedy The Trip 2. However, their latest Spanish-language collaboration is instead a gritty, dark drama that follows a man named Misael (Leguizamo) throughout his time in jail.
The screenplay, co-written by Trompetero alongside Jeiver Pinto and Gerardo Pinzon, follows Misael during his imprisonment as he awaits sentencing for a revenge crime he committed against the man who killed his son. During his incarceration, he suffers both physically and mentally at the hands of both the prison guards and his fellow inmates, but manages to find comfort and company in the form of Mange, the prison’s dog.
The film has its fair share of twists and turns, not only in the events occurring in the prison but also the wider arc of Misael’s crime and sentencing, but the companionship and caring nature of dogs, and animals in general, is perhaps the most prominent throughline of the film. Like Misael, the viewer also quickly forms an emotional attachment with Mange, who is central to the story and spends a fair amount of time on screen.
The foundation on which the film is based is simply that “animals can sometimes be more sensible and have better attitudes and feelings than human beings,” explains Trompetero.
“About the dogs and the relationships of these beautiful characters, it was a very, very deep and long process. We found many people who work with animals, experts, and we talked with them. But one day, I was in the streets of Bogato and I saw an old guy who had like 20 dogs that he brought from the streets and he took care of them in his house. He had a couple that were very similar and he played with them.
“I said to [producer] Mauricio [Brunetti], ‘I want this guy with those three dogs to do the movie’. Mauricio told me ‘you are crazy. We have to find the best trainer of dogs. In the movies, we look for many people around the industry’, and I said ‘no, no, I want those dogs. They give you a real taste of the movie and this guy is beautiful. The advantage of having two dogs that are very similar is that if one doesn’t work, we can replace them with the other one.’
“We started to do rehearsals, rehearsals and rehearsals, and John started to have a very deep relationship with the dogs and that is the way we worked. With love and rehearsals, they became our friends and we got it done in that way.”
But beyond the messaging surrounding animals, like Mange, the viewer also quickly forms an emotional attachment with Misael. The film is essentially an extreme and intensive character study of the physical and mental pain of a wronged man, driven by some excellent performances that provide the film with real weight.
Leguizamo offers a spectacular turn as Misael, especially in his commitment to the physical demands of the role. Meanwhile, the supporting ensemble is full of great outings too. Adriana Barraza, nominated for an Oscar for her Supporting role in 2006/7 for her work in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, demonstrates her veteran status in the role of Gloria Vera, a lawyer. Ramiro Meneses makes use of his comedy background and offers great energy as Antonio, an inmate responsible for smuggling items, whilst Alvaro Rodriguez is domineering, resolute and at times despicable as the prison warden Caceres.
“To get this amazing casting was a dream come true by himself. I never expected to have that huge and beautiful casting we had. I worked with John Leguizamo before this movie and in this job, I asked John to give me advice on how he felt and what his opinion was about Dark Blood. He read it and he loved it. He told me that he wanted to play the character of Misael. I said to him, when we get all the production and stuff, if we can afford you to get in… and he helped a lot to get the possibility that he’d be in the film.
“After we started casting, Mauricio always wanted to have Adriana Barraza and he proposed her for the lawyer. It was ‘okay, if we can have Adriana, it will be a dream for me as well’ and Adriana accepted. It was beautiful to work with her. The rehearsals we had with John about the conversations they have, in the few words they have in the movie, was very specific, very slow, very reflexive, very thinking how we can do this development of these scenes with John and Adriana.
“Ramiro Meneses and Alvaro Rodriguez, it was my dream to work with them. Ramiro was a Cannes actor in one of the biggest movies in the history of Colombia, that is Rodrigo D: No futuro, and it was a pleasure to work with him. I have worked with him many, many times and having him inside of this movie was a miracle because he wasn’t in my plans and I couldn’t easily find the actor who interpreted this guy in the movie… “Why not Ramiro?” and I called him and he sent me a casting . Actually, he did this casting in his bathroom where he was staying in a hotel. In the casting, he actually did a piece in the mirror, showing the camera how he would do the piece. A very deep and strong interpretation, and I said ‘yes, this is the guy for this character’.
“Alvaro Rodriguez is the king of actors in Colombia and he interpreted the counterpart of John Leguizamo, was an amazing experiment. It was a dream to have John Leguizamo and all these actors.”
Indeed, the performances by seniors like Barraza, Meneses and Rodriguez are understandably powerful. However, it is Maria Nela Sinisterra who gives arguably the strongest supporting performance as Misael’s wife Clara, despite having only a small amount of time on screen.
“Maria Sinisterra was a surprise. I love her performance. It’s very painful, very harsh, very deep inside how she did because she’s the outsider of the movie, that is the biggest turn of the movie.”
The authenticity of the prison is perfectly established through all manners of the production design, from the costumes (Ana Maria and Acosta Ospina) and the makeup and hair (Teresa de Jesus and Catano Bedoya), to the production design of a repainted former prison (Gonzalo Martinez) and the swathes of unnamed prisoners who are actually inmates-turned-actors that served sentences at the very prison featured in the film. The dingy colour grading works in tandem with the grimy location to create an appropriately oppressive atmosphere.
The entire film is spent at this one location, never straying beyond the confines of the prison wall. This is a decision that really works on multiple levels. The omission of a family narrative outside the prison means that we are subconsciously left to wander about the thoughts and actions of Misael’s family without the inclusion of a subplot which would break the intensity of the prison narrative. It also helps maintain the focus on Misael as the protagonist and aids his feeling of total isolation and loneliness, in turn enhancing the feeling that his family are slowly forgetting about him and moving on.
Films that are set in a single location can oftentimes feel somewhat gimmicky or downright unnecessary, but here the ability to tell an interesting and cohesive story in a single space is impressive, especially for such an intensely character-focussed film. It enables the actors to shine, yet also depends on them giving strong performances. Thankfully, Leguizamo is very strong and the film demands as much, since there is barely a second of its 83-minute runtime in which he is not on screen. In turn, his performance is all the more commendable.
Such sentiment is further enhanced by the complete lack of a musical score. The ability of the entire cast to drive the story forward, even in moments of complete silence, without the need for non-diegetic ambiance is testament to their acting credentials. The closest resemblance to a score is the soundscape composed of diegetic sounds layered with disorienting ringing.
“We had at the beginning a very great composer. He did a very spectacular proposal for the movie. But when we were looking, we decided to see how it was without the music and we decided to keep it without the music because it would reinforce the amazing acting of the characters and the tension.
“We put very low sounds that work like music, but it’s not really music. It’s more like effects or sounds that give you some kinds of sensations. Some of them are not even perceivable by ear, but we decided to do this so you can appreciate the acting of the actors that is very impressive in this movie.”
In certain sequences, the editing by Javier Sanchez Carreno is rather experimental, creating a visually engaging and almost disjointed experience with moments of dissociation and jump cuts, some of which take Misael to seemingly inconsistent positions, an effective tool to clearly reflect his incoherent and disjointed mental state. Thus, it is particularly interesting to note that elements like this were not woven into the fabric of the script, but rather came about in post-production.
“The editing job with Javier Sanchez was very, very amazing work because we wrote the movie inside the editing room. Javier proposed something that was amazing – a contraposition to editing a very classical kind of movie, very slow that has moments that go fast and has very experimental ways to tell the story. Before movies, I used to work in video art where we experimented a lot with the vision and Javier brought all those elements of the video art to very specific moments that broke the normal, classical narrative that you use in a movie with these moments that are very disruptive.”
The cinematography courtesy of Hugo Colace creates a real sense of intimacy and empathy with Misael through extreme close ups in which Misael is the only thing in frame, but also develops his feeling of isolation and loneliness by using wide shots to make him appear small. As with the approach to editing, the camerawork also exhibited some experimental tendencies. For instance, a number of shots are clearly taken from a character’s point-of-view, further enhancing the viewer’s engagement and proximity to the unfolding narrative and drawing you into the action; one sequence is even taken from the perspective of the dog!
“As a DP, Hugo Colace was a dream for me. He is one of the biggest cinematographers of recent times. He had made history in new ways to do cinematography, not only for the light but also for the point of view he proposed within the movie.”
The plot of the film is quite distressing and devastating, and some visual elements reflect that. An obvious example is the visions that Misael has of his dead son around the prison throughout the film, but a more abstract one was the recurring motif of a dripping water tap. These were particularly effective as another way of establishing the protagonist’s vulnerable mental state without feeling cliched or being overused.
Overall, Dark Blood stands as an intriguing, inventive and character-driven story made possible by the strong direction of tremendous acting performances, some experimental approaches to editing and cinematography, and an impressive attention to detail in the production design.