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Mystery Without a Mystery, The Contenders Is DOA

This slice of wooden wannabe Strindberg begins with what's meant as a thrilling opening-line teaser: "When did you realize she was dead?" But it doesn't take long to realize that not only will it not matter, but that the film itself is clearly DOA. Five old friends convene at a yuppie vacation house for a winter weekend of flirtation and truth-telling, but things get off to a disturbing start when one of them (never seen, never more than a device) dies during an afternoon nap. The host couple project bitter discord, an aging vixen exudes world-weary resignation, and a handsome melancholic drinks his way to hateful glee, all as the body is removed, various couplings clinch, and everyone, the viewer especially, bemoans the passing time. The Contenders is a mystery with nothing to reveal, a drama without consequence, an elegy of dispassion. Lacking wisdom or even earnest intent, the film's flaws of execution become more apparent. Director Marta Mondelli and DP Vitaly Bokser call attention to frames within the frame, shooting down hallways and through windows to communicate isolation and distance, but their moody lighting schemes cop from cheapie soft-core. Poorly blocked and saddled with ineffectually arch dialogue, the actors are unyieldingly stiff except for slacker-cute Adam Henry Garcia, who remains a vaguely appealing presence even as he plays aggressively repellant. Suitably for a film that lacks clear intent or direction, The Contenders just ends, mid-sentence, the point of it all frankly elusive.


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