Timecrimes is the Anglicized title of a 2008 Spanish film named Los cronocrímenes. It was written and directed by a man with one of the best names in the film business, Nacho Vigalondo. Vigalondo was responsible for the most excellent short film 7:35 de la mañana (7:35 in the morning - SLYT), which was released in 2003 and nominated for an Academy Award. In any case, Timecrimes is a natural move up the ladder for Mr. Vigalondo. While a full-length film, this one retains the minimalist feel of his earlier short, with a tiny cast and a deliberately spare feel. So what's it all about?

Timecrimes (which I watched subtitled in English; my Spanish is nonexistant) is a tight, small time travel thriller. As such, it joins many other works exploring the nature of this McGuffin. It will, for example, be impossible to watch this movie without thinking of Primer, if you've seen the latter.

The movie opens with a man driving home from a home and garden store, traveling out into what looks like fairly rural wooded countryside. He arrives at what appears to be his home, which is outfitted with the dropcloths, scaffolding and plastic sheeting which tell us that it's being renovated. His wife is there, and he dutifully hands over the various things he's purchased at her behest before settling into a folding lawn chair in his backyard with a pair of binoculars and commencing to gaze out around the (admittedly very nice) wooded hillsides surrounding them.

He catches sight of a young woman, some distance away, just at the edge of the treeline. She's not bad looking. Somewhat guiltily, he continues to watch the area, hoping to catch sight of her again. His wife decides she needs to go back into town to get dinner supplies, and he waits for her to leave before looking again. There she is; and this time, she's taking her shirt off.

And then the story starts. He sees glimpses of things, things that make him decide to leave his lounge chair and wander up the hillside. Things that pull him into a series of events which are notable not only because they involve an apparent cast of bizarre characters, but because (as the title warns us) they're bent throughout that afternoon. How? Well, that would be telling, but I assure you, that question is answered quite quickly and matter-of-factly. Time travel, in this movie, is a McGuffin, as I mentioned- how it happens isn't important, although handwaving explanations are given for why this poor chap ends able to take the timestream walkabout.

It's difficult to give you any more than that without proffering spoilers, so I'll limit myself to comments about the story rather than further revealing it. The story is so bare-bones that we are (deliberately) given no information about anyone or anything that doesn't concern the event chain we're watching. That's no doubt good for the budget, but it also has the effect of forcing us to spend the maximum amount of attention analyzing what happens, rather than more ethereal things like motives, psyches, history, or anything like that. At some points, particularly early in the film, this can result in the viewer thinking things along the lines of 'why on earth would anybody react by doing that?' or 'why can't that person figure this out?' While this can be jarring, it gradually becomes clear that those questions aren't the ones the movie is interested in exploring.

Essentially, the entire movie is a set-piece intended to provoke thought around one of the classic time-travel questions. Namely, the destiny versus free will question. In other words, once a sequence of events has been set in motion (especially through time travel, meaning that the causality relationships are scattered through time and it's feasible to be forewarned of them) is it possible for the actors to choose differently? Or are they predestined to follow the same sequence of events like puppets, even knowing their fate? Timecrimes juices up the conflict a bit by offering us a fairly horrific view of the potential outcomes of this event chain, which serves to make the contrast even clearer: presented with a sequence of events that the actor knows (because they've seen it, thanks to time travel) will result in a very negative outcome, can they change the outcome and change their future? Will they? Will their efforts to do so backfire?

And thus it goes. It's a fairly tense movie, since pretty much from the moment the protagonist leaves the metaphorical safety of his back yard we are presented with events that are fraught with conflict, peril, and what can only be described as inexplicably horrible behavior. Will we get explanations for why it happens? Well, as it turns out, mostly, yes. Will we be satisfied with them? That's up to you.

The movie isn't very distinctive visually. That, however, is likely due to the obsessive focus on events and actions; this movie is consciously attempting to rope you in with puzzles, not with a look or with atmospherics. It mostly succeeded, in my case. I spent most of the movie trying to 'figure it out,' and I didn't get the endgame right. I did manage to figure out some of the small intervening puzzles ('why did that just happen?') but to be fair, the movie wants you to figure those out. The 'look and feel' does remind me of another Spanish film I liked, Intacto. I don't know if there is anything to this other than the setting, though - both were filmed in Spain. I'm not enough of a film buff to tell you if the directors shared training, philosophy, or equipment and supplies, or if those would account for the similarities.

I should point out that I wasn't paying much attention to the acting or the technical work (camera angles, sound, etc.) in the movie, as I was pretty much concentrating on the 'storyline.' At least one noder has mentioned that they were unable to get far into this movie because the acting and camera work turned them off too much to make the effort, and I have to say that even though I didn't have trouble getting through, I can see their point. If you choose to watch this, watch it for the story and the questions and not the art of film.

However, there is one fairly enormous flaw in the movie, which becomes apparent at the very end. Namely, the writer/director actively deceives you at one point. While this isn't in itself a major crime, it stands out particularly here because throughout the rest of this movie, Vigalondo is diligent about telling you precisely What Happened in the scene you're looking it, and only withholding context or information that isn't available to you because of the sequence or actual time you're viewing the event at. Yes, the whole point of this movie is to see the same thing happen from multiple viewpoints in order to gain more context. So in that sense, you're not so much being deceived, normally, as you are being guided in what information is available to you.

In one particular place, though, it turns out that you weren't just blinkered - you were actively misled. And at the end, that caused me to lower my estimate of the movie's impact; I felt (perhaps unjustly) that Vigalondo had resorted to 'cheating' to keep the suspense level up. Even though that's his prerogative, and the fact that most movies do this all the time, sometimes even as their most important characteristic, the cheat was in such contrast to the way the rest of the film was done that it was jarring and subtracted from my enjoyment of the film.

Of course, I thought about it a couple of days later, and only then realized that while looked at one way the problem was a cheat - looked at in another way, it might just have been an answer to the main question of destiny or free will.

And you know what? I don't know whether that was what it was meant to be or not - but the possibility is clearly there, and Vigalondo strikes me as easily good enough at his craft that he would know he'd left a big jarring cheat in the middle of his movie. So maybe that's what he meant all along.

All in all, Timecrimes is an entertaining 92 minutes, if not a game-changing movie. It won several awards, and apparently Hollywood has finally gotten its moneyed hooks into Vigalondo, because IMDb tells me that it is being remade by the American movie industry for a 2011 release, with the same name (Timecrimes).

Timecrimes (Los cronocrímenes) (Spain, 2008)

Writer/Director/Actor: Nacho Vigalondo
Rating: R (USA)
Language: Spanish (available with English subtitles)
Length: 92 minutes

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