Timecrimes, a clever piece of storytelling from Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, is all about Héctor (Karra Elejalde), a middle-aged man just moved with his wife, Clara (Candela Fernández) into a new countryside home. When the film opens, Héctor is already exhausted, but by the time it’s over he’ll be utterly drained, having lived through an extended ordeal with the sustained intention of trying to put his increasingly fractured life back together.
When Héctor heads into the woods to investigate further, his intentions may actually be wholesome. But in Vigalondo’s ruthless formulation, it’s that one little misstep, that impossibly minor distraction from his married life, that sets him on a long downward spiral. It’s hard to explain much more of what happens without giving the game away, and to be honest a lot of what makes Timecrimes worth watching is its modest but satisfying revelations — this isn’t a particularly tricky narrative, but rather an unfussy story with precious few threads tied into a deceptively beefy-looking knot.
Intentionally vague SPOILERS follow.
Most time-travel yarns, it seems, embrace a fundamental paradox — the notion of, say, traveling back in time and killing your own mother before she gives birth to you. If you succeed in such a mission, it follows that you would never have existed in the first place, which makes the whole scenario seem a bit dubious. Aficianados explain the machinations of time-travel in stories such as the Terminator movie series by referring to the idea of parallel but alternate realities — multiple potential branched realities proceeding forward from the point where a determined time-traveler managed to engineer a new future. Despite that kind of waffling (which necessarily suggests the existence of one thoroughly miserable, oppressive reality for every salvaged brighter day), that sort of film is fundamentally optimistic — it believes in the potential of science, and the pluckiness of the human spirit, to take extraordinary measures to remold an apparently hopeless reality.
Timecrimes is not like that. It’s pessimistic. Like the brilliant Primer (which worked partly as a morality play about the Silicon Valley technology-bubble culture of the late 1990s), it posits time travel as a fundamentally hubristic endeavor that may eventually teach you more than you wanted to know about yourself. Héctor travels repeatedly on the same immalleable timeline, not on branching ones — his world has but one possible present and future, and Vigalondo uses a fairly strict first-person narrative strategy (you’re never made privy to bits of information until Héctor himself discovers them) that not only encourages viewer identification with him, but engenders a sort of dawning sense of dismay at the rigidness of his predicament. Despite the presence in Hector’s narrative of a freaking time machine — an awesome deus ex machina — he’s locked by nature into a clockwork series of inevitable decisions that eventually result in a base compromise. The several different series of events depicted in Timecrimes take place in parallel, but in a depressingly linear fashion.
I can imagine a Michael Haneke version of this film that would be a truly punishing experience. (The rumored Cronenberg remake would no doubt be somewhat crazier.) By contrast, Vigalondo’s directorial style could be described as unpretentious, bordering on drab. But he can do scary — the film’s first 20 minutes are quite tense, and one shot chilled me to the bone. And he has a talent for narrative striptease that makes the film awfully fun to watch, especially as he deliberately deflates the horror of those opening scenes. Elejalde puts a comic spin on Héctor himself — it’s not quite clear whether he’s really bone-tired or just fundamentally lazy, but he never manages to move especially quickly and seems thoroughly annoyed that he ever got up out of his lawn chair in the first place — and the spunky Goenaga (credited with the role of “La Chica en el Bosque”) brings on some well-grounded sex appeal, even when she’s not topless.
But if you’re in a philosophical mood, Timecrimes can be read not just as a cautionary tale about straying from hearth and home in search of a pair of fresh boobies — although it certainly is that — but also as a fable about the capacity for callousness that may dwell inside us all. Or, finally, as a grimly funny sci-fi determinist’s challenge to the very idea of free will.