Directed by Andrea Di Stefano / Written by Andrea Di Stefano and Francesca Marciano / Starring Josh Hutcherson, Benicio Del Toro, Claudia Traisac and Brady Corbet
Imagine traveling to a foreign country, wanting to set up a cute little surf school and hippy hang out on the beach, unawares to the socio-political state of the country you are in? Like not only unaware, but completely naive and ignorant to the fact that a drug lord, who happens to control about 80% of the cocaine industry, lives right around the corner form said little surf school. This is the exactly the case in ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST, a thriller that should serve as a warning to get to know your future relatives, before you lock that down.
It should be noted that this story is fictional, but much unlike a different, highly revered movie about a rise-to-fame Latino drug lord (to which ESCOBAR will see many comparisons), this movie weaves together some factual information as well. Think of it as Pablo Escobar fan-fiction, if you will. ESCOBAR opens in 1991 with two bright-eyed and bushy tailed young Canadians (played by Josh Hutcherson and Brady Corbet) who have found a cute plot of land on the Colombian coast to set up a camp for expats and surfing enthusiasts. While visiting the local village, Nick (Hutcherson) meets a beautiful, young woman who just happens to be directing the hanging of a massive billboard poster of local hero and leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar. Maria (Claudia Traisac) tells Nick that El Patron is her uncle.
Despite her family ties, Nick quickly falls in love with Maria faster than you could eat a coca leaf, and soon he is invited to Pablo’s birthday party for some cake and dancing. Totally normal. Nick is offered a job by Pablo which he takes, but soon realizes that his drug cartel is more powerful than he had originally thought, and the political ties run deep. Soon, Nick finds himself trapped under Escobar’s persuasive power and becomes tasked with hiding parts of Escobar’s wealth.
Escobar’s fame and eventual surrender is not fictionalized here, but if you are looking for a movie that really gets into who the man is, and just what it is exactly he did, you are probably better off looking elsewhere. Despite the title of the film, it isn’t about Escobar at all, but the story of a young man who gets involved with the Escobar family, and it is told entirely from that perspective. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t interesting, because I was captivated the entire time, and that is mostly to do with first time director Andrea Di Stefano’s ability to create and sustain suspense. The romance between Nick and Maria, the bond that holds Nick to Escobar’s far reaching hands, can be rather tiresome though, and after some time, it begins to feel as though parts of that story were missing in the final cut.
Benicio Del Toro, who plays Escobar, brought to mind Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone with a terrifying calmness as he directs various illicit deeds. One scene where Escobar cooly admits to Nick that it was not God who had anything to do with saving his brother’s surf camp is utterly haunting, Del Toro’s work here is among his best. Hutcherson’s naive Canadian, Nick, as he goes from innocent surfer to gun carrying, cartel worker is a painful transition to watch because we the audience can see, so clearly through Hutcherson, that what he has become involved in frightens him to no end. The last act of the film builds on that tension and doesn’t want to let its audience go.
As enjoyable as the movie is to watch, it isn’t without its faults either. The misleading title, the naive perspective from which we are shown this history, the love story that seems to intrude into a very good thriller, all suggest that De Stefano might have been too afraid to take certain chances. Many will compare this film to Di Palma’s SCARFACE, simply because of the subject matter, but there is one instance of fantastic camera work that suggests a nod to Di Palma’s film (or, is that a Hitchcock nod too?). ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST seems to be omitting some more important parts of Colombia and Escobar’s history, to focus on a young man who gets tangled up in a web he cannot escape. And the ending itself also doesn’t do the movie as a whole any favours. The last shot of the final scene implies Nick’s outcome without showing us exactly what happens, but this shot gives a cheesiness to the final scene that I personally could have done without.
In the end, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST works great as a thriller, and no so great as a romance, and definitely hits the middle mark by trying to do both. Its lack of on screen violence will be both a relief to some and irksome to others who might be expecting lots of action, but again, this is where the movie plays it safe. Del Toro’s performance is worth the price of admission alone, but the entire movie, with its genuinely crafted suspense will keep you entertained the whole way through, despite getting a little lost itself along the way.