Every so often a film comes along that knows exactly what it is, but proves adept at throwing viewers off the scent. White Coffin (or Ataúd Blanco, El Juego Diabólico) is just such a film, gleefully steering us down familiar-seeming roads, before taking every twisted dirt path and circuitous detour it can find, so that its narrative map, though already inscribed in our heads, will still leave us deliciously, diabolically lost. And, at a brisk 70 minutes, this brainchild of veteran Argentine genre director Daniel de la Vega (Necrophobia 3D, Blood Brothers, Death Knows Your Name, Jennifer’s Shadow) and writing brothers Ramiro and Adrián García Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Penumbra, Here Comes the Devil, Scherzo Diabolico), barrels along to its bitter end.
When we first meet Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) she is on the road, and engaged in two activities that will come to define the film: first, she is playing a word association game with her young daughter Rebeca (Fiorela Duranda), which not only reveals a lot about what is on the minds of both, but also marks the beginning of the ‘devilish game’ promised by the film’s original subtitle; and second, she is in flight from her husband Julian. Flight, it will turn out, is Virginia’s characteristic mode – but as she enters middle-of-nowhere town Moriah (named after the Biblical mountain range where Abraham bound his own son for a divinely ordained sacrifice), she will reach a crossroads in her life where, desperate and alone, she will find that determination and decisive action trump running away.
Although Virginia does not at first notice them, the signs are all around of where the plot is headed. More specifically, there are the ‘missing’ posters for little Natalia Coba. And there is that ominous Hitchcockian/Hermannesque score (by Luciano Onetti, who recently wrote and directed the giallo homage Francesca, 2015), or the way that Virginia is shown in medium shot, driving – like Psycho‘s Marion Crane – with a look of panic on her face and what looks like back projection behind her. And there is that sinister tow truck which keeps rattling past, with its distinctive tool-clinking sound lifted straight out of Greg McClean’s Wolf Creek (2005). By the time Virginia has stopped with Rebeca for a snack at a rest area, viewers will be congratulating themselves for predicting a nightmarish abduction scenario reminiscent of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988).
Sure enough, Rebeca will be kidnapped – but from here on in, guessing what will happen next becomes impossible, as Virginia finds herself racing, in competition with two other, similarly driven women (Eleonora Wexler, Verónica Intile), to save her daughter from a horrific fate – occasionally guided in her life-and-death dash against the clock by a mysterious helper (Rafael Ferro) who lays out the rules while remaining aloof from the proceedings. Like Virginia, White Coffin itself is “no longer tied to the laws of this world”, taking a random-seeming, anything-goes approach to genre, so that the careful, calculated route of this round journey becomes apparent only at the very end of the road. For all the chases, missions and diabolical genre games lead surreally but inexorably to decision, judgment and confronting interpretation. It is a trip (and a mother) of a movie, full of Psycho pomp and Satanic circumstance – and, like all great films, it will leave you wanting to retrace its convoluted backroads again and again in a timeless loop.
© Anton Bitel