Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia made his name with the the cult hits Mutant Action (Accion Mutante) and Day Of The Beast (El día de la Bestia), two films that riotously mixed social commentary with blood soaked black humor with the former dealing a gang of physically disabled terrorists waging a guerilla war on the rich in twisted future while latter saw a priest committing as many sins as he can so as to gain an audience with Satan in a plan to thwart the antichrist. I’ll be honest, after these two rousing, 90’s oddities, I kind of fell off the Iglesia train and lost track with his output but after settling down to watch 2017’s The Bar (El Bar – that’s the last unnecessary title translation, I swear), consider me pretty much interested again…
In a run down cafe in Madrid, various people are minding their own business and trying to ignore the smell from local transient, Israel who has come in to beg for change. However, everyone’s day suddenly takes a turn for the stressful when one of the cafe patrons strolls out of the establishment and is promptly shot by a hidden sniper, dropping dead right then and there. At first everyone isn’t exactly sure what actually occur but gets brutally brought up to speed when a good samaritan from their ranks dashes outside to help and then also gets his hair fatally parted by a high-caliber bullet. Realising that not only are they being specifically targeted by a mystery assailant but also the streets are bizarrely deserted; the eight people left in the bar start to theorize, panic and point fingers at each other in rapid succession not only thanks to the fear coursing through their veins but the very real prejudices that they have of their fellow captives.
Unbelievably, matter get even worse upon the discovery of a ninth member of their group who staggers out of the bathroom while succumbing to some mysterious virus while his milky white eyes bulging out of his head.
What the fuck is going on; are the sniper and the bloated corpse connected somehow, is this some hideous coincidence or are they the focus of some gruesome plot? As paranoia spreads throughout the bar like whatever godforsaken pathogen is riddled throughout the dead guy on the floor, lines are drawn and the group schisms into two sections with one batch sent into the basement at gunpoint.
As the plot thickens (or should that be sickens) even further, trust all but evaporates and paranoia and murder become the order of the day as desperate survival instincts threaten to overwhelm common decency and fate drives these seemingly normal people to violent acts.
While the story trope of everyday, decent civilians being driven to become brutal killers due to some unbelievable quirk of fate is hardly new, The Bar manages to stand out for a couple of reasons. The first is the De La Iglesia realises that injecting the exceedingly cruel proceedings with his signature jet black humour stops things into degenerating into soul sapping misery porn and highlights the satirical nature of the brutal material. All the characters, be it upper class young woman Elena or tech-savvy ad designer Nacho, all resemble Rasputin-looking down-and-out Israel by the time the movie reaches it’s midway point and the movie revels in breaking down each and every character until they are a bestial shell of their former selves.
Class issues are wielded like weapons (well, until actual weapons are utilised, that is) and alliances are formed that prove to be a flimsy as wet toilet paper as everyone’s word becomes utterly worthless when the chips are down.
And yet many questionable laughs are mined from this tale of degradation and cruelty: behold the scene where everyone discovers a possible escape route through a narrow grate that leads to the sewers that leads everyone to coat the deranged Israel in cooking old and try and forcibly cram him through the tiny hole while he screams encouragement.
The ensemble cast are nicely game to submerge themselves in their character’s growing inhumanity like a fetid jacuzzi, which proves to be more than an apt metaphor considering that everyone spends the final reel wading through the shit infested waters of a sewer.
If the film suffers somewhat, it’s only because the prejudices of the various self-obsessed characters seem to vary as the film goes on based on whatever circumstances the poor bastards are forced to endure at any given time. Age, race, class, social standing, they all get trotted out until everyone simply distrusts each other because they’ve all lost their damn minds and maybe that’s Iglesia’s point; that we live in a time where we find no end of reasons to separate outselves from the people around us in order to be safe – but while the ever mutating distrust keeps the story moving at a fair old clip, it keeps the message feeling a tad simplistic. Also, the film stretches credulity somewhat in order to keep the forward momentum of the script thanks to the group finding some suspiciously fire-resistant items after a blaze (is Samsung making flame retardant phones, now?), but despite these rather clumsy plot machinations, The Bar remains a suprisingly perky example of human beings treating each other like garbage.
There’s a strong belief that movies that loudly support the mathematical sum displayed on a thousand Slipknot jerseys that state People = Shit should be an utterly depressing experience (try sitting through apocalypse thriller The Divide without wanting to open up your wrists like a tin of beans), but The Bar manages to keep things interesting without resorting to despair.