Something Else
By Michael Koresky

Two Shots Fired
Dir. Martin Rejtman, Argentina, Cinema Tropical

A film like Martin Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired—if there is another film like Two Shots Fired—encourages critics to talk about the radical power of narrative digression. This assumes, of course, that a film has a centralized narrative to begin with, and that this supposedly anchoring narrative somehow controls the characters we see onscreen. It’s only because linearity is so common in this time-based medium that the authorial choice to digress can be identified and marginalized as a conceit rather than as a structuring framework, which is more often accepted in contemporary literature. Thus a film like Raul Ruiz’s late masterwork Mysteries of Lisbon, with its lengthy dives into seemingly unrelated subplots, is seen as an elaborate “trick,” a game played with its audience, while Karl Ove Knausgaard’s hefty, Proustian bestseller My Struggle, which can without warning detour into a nested narrative triggered by an errant memory, is considered a sobering work with a clearly outlined grand plan. In his new film, Rejtman has no interest in playing with his audience, nor does he seem to want to intimate that there is an overarching structuring device that will ground his story or clarify his intent. One could see the Argentinean director’s entire film as a mere random assembly of incidents, but that would belittle its characters, who have agency, even if they act in ways unexpected in our usual definitions of cinema.

The film has an inciting event, as indicated by the title. In what amounts to a particularly eventful prologue, seventeen-year-old Mariano (Rafael Federman) dances to thumping techno music at a club, goes home in the early morning hours, swims a few laps in the backyard family pool, discovers a handgun in the garage, takes it into his bedroom, and shoots himself twice, first in the head and then in the stomach. We see no blood, but we hear the terrible, piercing sound of the gunshot. The expressionless Mariano’s vulnerability is enhanced by the sight of his bare flesh—he’s only wearing a bathing suit and a pair of swimming goggles dangling from his neck. The matter-of-factness of the entire sequence, which builds up without suspense or rationality, is underlined by its being told in a series of static frames. It’s the kind of sequence one might call “deadpan comic” if we had a reason to think this teenage boy’s actions were linked to any sort of morbid curiosity on his or the filmmaker’s part. Instead, it comes across as merely sterile and unmotivated. We want to know more.

For those who have seen other films by Martin Rejtman, however, it may come as no surprise that he isn’t particularly willing to tell us what we want to know. Rejtman, often identified as both an influence on and a sort-of member of the New Argentine Cinema movement—which also included films by such masters of idiosyncratic realism Lucrecia Martel, Lucia Puenzo, and Pablo Trapero—seems fascinated by characters whose motivations and desires remain safely hidden from viewers (and perhaps even their creator), even as his camera looks at them head on and follows their actions with almost clinical precision. Just who are these people in The Magic Gloves or Silvia Prieto, whose psychological reasoning seems so close to the surface but is made opaque by machinations that place them within the strictures of a “plot”? The shooting that begins Two Shots Fired in a sense drives the narrative, but it is revealed as just one of many, less dramatic, events that provide character clues; so little seems to spring directly from it that it could have occurred at the film’s climax, or its midpoint. But its placement at the outset, however unstable, is crucial, both an acknowledgment and a refutation of classical cinematic grammar, of the principles that Colin MacCabe once described as thus: “Narrative begins with an incoherence but already promises the resolution of that incoherence.”

As we soon discover, Mariano survives the apparent suicide attempt, with barely any physical trace of its occurrence (though, crucially, we never see him shirtless again). What then unfolds over the remaining 100 minutes is ostensibly his and his family’s reaction to the shooting, which Rejtman, in his laidback manner, aggressively portrays as the mundane stuff of life. The event is spoken of here and there, but other pressing matters—flirtations, vacations, music rehearsals, a missing dog—are intermittently given narrative supremacy. Is the shooting itself nothing more than a narrative digression, or, if the shooting is the essential element, is the entire resulting film the digression?

Certainly, Mariano’s mother, Susana (Susana Pampín), is concerned about the well being of her son following his near-death, hiding kitchen knives, burying the gun in the backyard, and insisting that he temporarily move in with his older brother, Ezequiel (Benjamín Coehlo), who can perhaps keep a closer watch on him. Otherwise, what we see are unremarkable daily interactions (the ordering of Chinese takeout) and quietly comic subplots, most recurringly one about the recorder quartet of which Mariano is a member. The self-seriousness with which the group’s elder members conduct themselves—scrutinizing a pretty new recruit (Manuela Martelli) as though she were applying for a job in a law firm—and the mockingly repetitive ancient-music melodies played on their flutes allow Rejtman to indulge in a more overtly satirical strain. But there is an overall fecklessness in this middle-class environment that extends to all the characters, affecting Ezequiel in his clumsy courting of fast-food worker Ana (Camila Fabbri); Susana, unable to function without sleeping pills; and certainly the other middle-aged men and women Susana interacts with while on an unfulfilling beach sojourn that takes up much of the film’s last third. As Lucrecia Martel did in the more excoriating La Ciénaga, Rejtman presents aimless characters just barely giving each other sustenance, their physical proximity belying the fact that they’re constantly spinning off into their own private emotional orbits.

“It was an impulse. It was very hot,” Mariano says by way of an explanation to his psychologist. He may be concealing nothing—nothing more than the indescribable need of a teenager to feel something. Or he may know more about his own reasons and is not telling his doctor—and thus acting like Rejtman in dialogue with his audience. And this is not unrelated: why does Rejtman decide to subtly track the camera in on a seemingly superfluous shot of Mariano in the kitchen, wrapping a cell phone in a napkin and hiding it in a potholder to muffle its ringing, when almost every other image in the film is static? Like Mariano’s moment of gunplay, the shot carries a sense of urgency, though we may never know why.