Death and the Compass (1996)

Genres - Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Police Detective Film, Psychological Thriller  |   Run Time - 90 min.  |   Countries - Japan , Mexico , United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Josh Ralske

Few filmmakers have tried to translate Jorge Luis Borges' dense, mystical, and brief stories to film. The most well-known effort is probably Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, which is one of the great filmmaker's more opaque works. Alex Cox's sardonic and politically engaged filmmaking style might seem well suited to adapting Borges' work, but the filmmaker's anarchic self-indulgence doesn't jibe with the writer's legendary economy. Shot in a fever dream Mexico City, Death and the Compass looks great. Cox's use of saturated color is effectively lurid. Cox himself makes an amusing cameo early in the film as a blind detective, boldly charging after a masked madman, Red Scarlach (who looks and sounds disconcertingly like William Finley in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise). The cast is talented, but the leads seem stymied by Cox's wacky writing. Peter Boyle is unusually stiff, while Miguel Sandoval and Christopher Eccleston are reduced to sweaty histrionics. Cox also distorts and attenuates the convoluted narrative by pointlessly jumping back and forth in time. His film is ambitious and offers occasional glimpses of the brilliant synergy that might have occurred had he reined himself in, just a little. Produced after Cox's artistic resurgence with El Patrullero and The Winner, the film has to be seen as a minor disappointment.