Manos Sucias (trans: Dirty Hands) is a short, sharp shock of a film. The feature debut from Josef Kubota Wladyka was shot fast - it was wrapped in 28 days, and this urgency renders every moment kinetic. Following the trials of a pair of estranged Colombian brothers trying to deliver a torpedo packed with cocaine to a local cartel, everything about the film is strained taut, from the tightly framed shots Wladyka favours, to the barely repressed violence running through Jarlin Javier Martinez’s excellent portrayal of elder brother Jacobo, to the fat free brevity of the running time – a swift 82 minutes.
In less than an hour and a half, Wladyka gives us deftly realised characters; the younger brother Delio dreams of financing a rap career with drug money, whilst Jacobo merely wants to raise some cash to get as far away from his home town – and the tragic memories it holds- as quickly as possible. Through their interactions with the hustlers, dealers, thieves, and soldiers a vivid sketch of Colombia is dashed out, a country troubled by racism, poverty and violence, but also blessed with music and laughter. Scenes of the brothers singing and dancing as they sail the coast line are endearing as they are vital; it’s these well observed touches, drawn out from improvisations around the script, that elevate the film from what might have been, in clunkier hands, a furrow browed isn’t-poverty-terrible pot boiler.
Inevitably the brother’s plans hit a number of snags, and as the film reaches a crescendo Wladyka gets to drop a superb set piece – a white knuckle dash on the Colombian equivalent of the jungle railroad, where motorbikes with pallets attached tear along ancient train tracks. As chase scenes go it’s as nervy as they come, incidental music stripped away to leave a soundtrack of motorbike engine whine and flimsy wooden rattle. It’s not a million miles away from the invention and thrill of the best Bond film chases, and an excitingly cinematic high point that’s quickly undercut by a finale defined by a horribly prosaic moment of violence.
With such sure footed pacing, and an executive producer credit for Spike Lee, it’s little surprise Manos Sucias has been picking up accolades at film festivals round the globe. It’s an excellent debut, a thriller that thrills and offers concise observation in equal measure. Recommended.