We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Gary Oldman stars in this thriller about two couples getting dangerously mixed up with the locals in an isolated area of the Basque country
Just when it might have looked like acclaimed actor Gary Oldman was happily chuntering along making a living with supporting roles in two mega-franchises (Harry Potter and Batman), he pops up in this low-budget Spanish-British-French thriller.
Oldman stars as Paul, a Brit who, accompanied by his partner Isabel (Italian-Spanish actress Sánchez-Gijón), his former colleague Norman (Considine) and his wife Lucy (French star Ledoyen), heads into the Euskadi region of the Basque country in northern Spain for a holiday. Paul, we learn when they stop at an inn in a village, has a local connection - "My grandmother was from these parts... I'm practically a local." Paul has bought and is renovating the old family home, a ramshackle house that's located deep in the woods.
As soon as the two couples turn onto minor side-roads and encounter leering locals, you know where this film is going. The quartet become unwittingly embroiled in a dangerous local matter when Paul, who fancies himself as a bit of a woodsman, finds a young girl (Esteve) imprisoned in a derelict house while he's out hunting with Norman. Paul, who's very much the alpha in this little quartet, insists on freeing her and taking her home with them.
The next day, Paul's opposite number from the inn, Paco (Homar), turns up with his brothers - the well-named Lechón (Ariño), Antonio (Gertrúdix) and their cousin Miguel (Uranga).
"A girl from the village went missing," says Paco. "We think she's lost in the woods." Realising he's lying and that they're looking for the girl from the ruin, Paul joins their search, hoping to divert them. While Paul talks with Paco and learns that the girl, Nerea, is the daughter of their sister, Norman goes off on his own with a shotgun and the girls receive a visit Lechón and Antonio, which rapidly turns from cordial (if a little creepy) to brutal. Violence is unleashed. Can the holidaymakers get to the police? Who will survive among these shotgun-toting parties? And just who is the girl's father?
Screenwriters Jon Sagalá and Koldo Serra have crafted a film that very much plays out as a homage to the classic backcountry thrillers of the 1970s, notably Deliverance and Straw Dogs. They even set the film in 1978, allowing director Serra to steep it in a 1970s vibe, with flairs and tracks from Leonard Cohen's 1974 album 'New Skin For The Old Ceremony'. It's set in the Basque country in the aftermath of Franco's death but the film doesn't actually say anything at all about the time or place. It could have been set anywhere.
When Paco, discussing Nerea's imprisonment, says, "Some things are better kept in secret" and "The innocent pay for the sins of the sinners", he hints at issues of incest and primitive interpretations of faith, but these aren't developed at all in the story which comes down to a straightforward case of parties hunting each other, all strung together with iffy dialogue. The characters are pretty unsympathetic too - both couples have issues, and when Norman and Lucy aren't bickering, he's off moaning until his violent actions unhinge him.
The film does have a primal atmosphere, the woodlands being well captured by cinematographer Unax Mendía. However, considering Europe has thrown up some highly original takes on the backcountry gothic genre, like Calvaire and Switchblade Romance, this is comparatively disappointing. Unlike the classic American film that defined the genre, this is more a film about tensions arising from misunderstanding and secrets, but these themes aren't given any real depth. Which is a shame, considering the strong leads and interesting setting.
A pretty average exercise in backcountry gothic.
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