By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Starring Agustina Cerviño, Valeria Giorcelli and Pablo Sigal
Directed by Martín Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi
Written by Martín Blousson, Macarena García Lenzi and Julieta García Lenzi
Dark Star Pictures
The phrase “there’s no place like home” takes on ominous implications in ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS, the new thriller from Argentine filmmakers Martín Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi. After making the rounds on the festival circuit under its Spanish language title Piedra, Papel y Tijera in 2019, the film is finally coming to the US through distributor Dark Star Pictures (HoneyDew, The Last Matinee). A dark exploration of family dynamics, grief, and insanity, ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS is unsettling, claustrophobic, and disturbing in the extreme while never resorting to the well-worn (and worn out) conventions of over-the-top gore and jump scares.
ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS opens with Maria José (Valeria Giorcelli) engrossed in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Over the course of the film, we learn that Maria José is obsessed with the classic musical and watches it nightly. Her viewing is soon disturbed by a ringing doorbell. Initially ignoring the disturbance, Maria José and her brother, aspiring filmmaker Jesús (Pablo Sigal), play a round of the children’s game rock, paper, scissors to determine who will greet their guest. Enter estranged half sister Magdalena (Agustina Cerviño). Magdalena left the family behind years before to become an actress in Spain and has recently recovered from a serious illness. In her long absence, Maria José and Jesús’ mother has died, leaving them alone to care for their bedridden father. Learning of her father’s apparent death by suicide, Magdelena has returned home to Argentina to claim her share of the inheritance and help settle the details of the estate.
Clearly uncomfortable in the family’s crumbling home and unnerved by Maria José’s erratic behavior, Magdalena nonetheless establishes an uneasy but amiable rapport with half-brother Jesús. After an overnight stay in her father’s room, Magdalena attempts to leave, but a violent fall down a flight of stairs prevents her exit. Incapacitated, she finds herself in the care of Maria José and Jesús. Now a pawn in her half-siblings’ shifting loyalties, Magdalena is subject to physical and psychological terrors born of sinister family secrets and insanity. Trapped in a broken body, she must rely on her wits to survive.
Although its plot has drawn superficial comparisons to Stephen King’s Misery, ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS stands on its own as a nuanced take on familiar themes. Despite the veritable hell that Jesús and Maria José put Magdalena through, they are ultimately sympathetic characters, themselves victims of childhood trauma, isolation, insanity, and grief. Valeria Giorcelli and Pablo Sigal are beautifully restrained as Maria José and Jesús. In moments when their characterizations could easily slip into broad caricature, Giorcelli and Sigal rein their performances in just enough to retain a manic but wholly believable edge. In Giorcelli and Signal’s hands, the siblings constitute two halves of a tragically damaged whole, perfectly balanced in an ever-shifting dance of light and darkness. Magdalena, subtly portrayed as a tough but vulnerable survivor by Agustina Cerviño, threatens that balance as a disrupting force in Maria José and Jesús’ lives and, as in the game of rock, paper, scissors, the three become separate elements that can only negate one another.
Directors Blousson and Lenzi wisely keep exposition to a minimum, although there are moments when the lack of definite details about the family’s past verges on frustrating. Nevertheless, that lack of knowledge on the part of the audience deepens the overall disturbing qualities of the film. Among those disturbing elements is the filmmakers’ use of The Wizard of Oz as a recurring motif. Blousson and Lenzi’s use of the beloved film, which could have easily come across as a hackneyed gimmick, is surprisingly layered both as a metaphor for Maria José’s need to hold on to an idealized childhood and for Magdalena’s journey. Ultimately, Magdalena is Dorothy Gale returned from Oz to a home smashed by a cyclone of death and guilt.
ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS makes the most of its limited sets and small cast to create an atmosphere of grimy claustrophobia. Exceptionally well-paced, the film consciously avoids blood and gore, making its rare moments of violence all the more shocking. Overall, ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS is an exceptional and innovative thriller that overcomes its obviously small budget with sheer talent and imagination. A worthy genre entry from an underrepresented part of the world in film, ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS is a must-see for fans of tense, psychological horror.
ROCK, PAPER AND SCISSORS is now available on US VOD from Dark Star Pictures.