I had my day planned around seeing the Best Foreign Film-nominated LEVIATHAN at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. But somehow, I got the time wrong, and by the time I got to the theater, the only thing showing was the premiere of an independent Spanish film called DAY RELEASE (aka TERCER GRADO). It had an interesting premise, so I decided to check it out. I’m so glad I did — it is a great suspense / crime / thriller, done by of a talented creative duo. Jesús Lloveras and Geoffrey Cowper wrote the film, and Jesús starred as the lead character, while Geoffrey directed.
The film opens with a character lighting a trail of flame that ultimately burns a car. Then it cuts to a our main character, Mark, waking up at dawn, apparently hung over. He’s outside of a strip club, and sleeping in the back seat of his car is a stripper, Mia (Sara Casasnovas).
He kicks her out, is generally an all-around ass, and then gets on the road. Ultimately, he reconsiders, and decides to give Mia a ride, and eventually drops her off at a mall. There he witnesses a violent armored car heist.
But instead of just hiding, Mark decides to follow the robbers. He plays a kind of cat-and-mouse game with them that sets off a string of life-changing events from which there is no turning back.
Maybe the lazy shorthand way of summing up DAY RELEASE is EL MARIACHI meets DRIVE. DRIVE because it has a car pursuit and suspense as the backbone for building the character of a lethal, yet compassionate, silent type. Of course, this is also a Spanish-language film made on a budget, though not one as small as EL MARIACHI. Like in the best independent films, the budget merely sets the scope of the story, but they find creative solutions to pull off all the shots they need. These guys were hungry and they found a way to just make it happen.
The lead character, Mark Rodriguez, is something of a mystery. Early on we learn that he’s trying to repair his relationship with his brother, Toni. Toni is angry that Mark was never around to take care of their mother when she was dying of cancer. It turns out Mark was in prison. And on top of that, Toni is being evicted from his home. With a dead mother, a past in prison, and an estranged brother, when the shit hits the fan, Mark has no one to turn to. But there was that stripper…
DAY RELEASE is a nice combination of a character-driven film and action movie. The action feel gritty and grounded — it is direct, swift, and deadly. In that sense, it feels more like real-life action than your typical Hollywood fare. At the Q&A after the film, the creators said that this was because they didn’t have the budget to do anything elaborate. But there is more to it than that. Everything in the movie is shown from the main character’s perspective. We don’t see master establishing shots so that we know where the villains are. When they come around the corner, we are seeing them for at the same time as the main character. This does a great job of communicating fear and maximizing suspense.
Another great idea the filmmakers had is not telling you every last detail of the characers’ lives. The layers of the lead character are slowly revealed as he is forced into different situations. But some things remain a mystery. We never learn what happened the night before at the strip club, for example. And yet, the filmmakers had those details, and a big backstory for the character, planned out. Actor Jesús Lloveras told me he drew from that material when motivating his character. They also originally had a two and a half hour cut of the movie, but pared it down to a tight 80 minutes. The result is that the film moves along at a rapid pace, but it has a depth rarely felt in similar movies. The editing is masterful.
I want to especially call out the amazing performance of Jesús Lloveras as Mark. He carries the movie, and this isn’t easy given that his character isn’t the most talkative guy in the world. But he’s got an incredibly expressive face, and the charisma to pull it off. The character undergoes a kind of rebirth in the movie — he starts off bearded, gruff, and grizzled. But as he gets cleaned up and the layers get pulled back we see see there is something more there. It is a remarkable transformation — I almost can’t believe it was the same actor.
Sara Casasnovas also turns in a fine performance as stripper Mia. She brings depth to her character, even if she’s largely a foil for Mark.
Given that Americans don’t much watch subtitled movies, especially ones without name actors, I’m not sure DAY RELEASE will reach the audience it should. But if you’re reading this, you’re a film fan, and you really should check it out once it finds some form of distribution. I’d love to see some directors with some clout in the Spanish-language world get behind this film and help it find its audience. I’m looking at you, Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro! And if there is an American remake, that would be pretty badass too. But only if it stars Jesús Lloveras — his English is great and I can’t imagine the film without him in the lead.
Maybe the highest compliment I can pay DAY RELEASE is that Jesús Lloveras and Geoffrey Cowper are now on my radar. These guys are top-notch talents, and I’ll go see anything they do.