In his tight, trim health insurance thriller A Monster With a Thousand Heads, Mexican-Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá achieves a visual style that is ice-cold but also deeply human — a clever way to depict an all-powerful system that feeds on our lives and thrives on our fallibility. Plá opens on a fortysomething man, Guillermo, horribly ill with cancer, as his wife, Sonia (Jana Raluy), and teenage son Dario (Sebastián Aguirre Boëda) scramble to help. But Guillermo remains on the edges of Plá’s ruthlessly fixed camera, which often keeps Sonia — agonized, frightened, but also determined — at the center of the frame. Desperate to get her husband approved for costly medication, she calls to arrange for an emergency meeting with his doctor. She has the insurance paperwork neatly arranged on the kitchen table; all the folders are clearly organized: the boxes of archived documents, the many X-rays carefully preserved.
You know what happens next. We all know what happens next. I’m someone who has literally flung multiple phones across multiple rooms in blind, shrieking rage after speaking to health insurance bureaucrats, so I shuddered along with each agonizing drip of Plá’s Chinese-water-torture plot. At every stage, Sonia is met with resistance — first mundane, then, gradually, monstrous. An operator tries to transfer her to the supervising physician, but the call drops out. She calls again, only to get voicemail. She goes to the office and is told to wait. The shift at the reception desk changes, and suddenly they don’t know who she is. So she sits there for hours. The physician isn’t there, they tell her. Did he leave? Was he ever there?
Suddenly, he materializes. “They told her you’re here,” a receptionist tells the irritated doctor when he asks why this woman is waiting for him. “But I’m not,” he says, incredibly, and walks out to go to his Friday squash game. Sonia and Dario follow the doc to the parking lot and corner him. She wants him to read some test results proving that the medication denied her husband actually has had a positive effect. It’s after hours, the man says. He can’t help. He drives off.
When Sonia gets in a cab and follows the motherfucker home, we understand that she means business, and the film starts to reveal itself as a thriller. Sonia, it turns out, has a gun and isn’t afraid to take matters into her own hands. Over the course of a night, as she pursues her husband’s case to the upper echelons of the insurance company, she faces red tape, apathy, obfuscation, and corruption. The obstacles mount, but so does her resolve.
This isn’t a typical genre piece, however. As we watch Sonia’s story, we hear fragments of a later trial, with characters from the film testifying against her and describing her actions. Plá cuts in these snippets of courtroom audio throughout the film, and rather than spoil the outcome of his own story, this device actually adds suspense: A Monster With a Thousand Heads eventually becomes something like a race between Sonia’s increasingly frantic behavior, which we know will catch up with her, and her efforts to get her husband the medicine he needs.
To work, the film needs us to both be on Sonia’s side and be shocked by what she’s capable of. Raluy, a Mexican TV and stage star making her movie debut, is captivating as a woman whose terror at her own behavior is matched only by her bewilderment at the system around her. Her actions, however extreme, grow out of her vulnerability and fear, which means the drama always feels like it’s coming from human experience and not out of an artificial need to escalate the narrative.
But the real star here is Plá, with his total control of the frame. He films each scene from unlikely perspectives. Just as he shoots Guillermo’s early travails with Sonia at the center of the screen, he shoots Sonia’s parking-lot confrontation with the doctor from the point of view of a man in another car waiting for a spot to free up. A locker-room face-off with the insurance company’s CEO plays out through the eyes of a stranger getting dressed. A late-night visit to a lawyer is seen from the perspective of the lawyer’s boyfriend, off in another room. These people aren’t just irrelevant bystanders: They’re receptionists, doormen, lovers, wives, and finally witnesses. Plá gives each of them their moment, which in turn calls our attention to the ways that indifference, comfort, and ignorance allow cruel systems to persist. And by refracting Sonia’s story through multiple perspectives, the director subtly reminds us that any of these people — any of us, really — could be next. Forget a thousand; this monster has as many heads as it has victims.
A Monster With a Thousand Heads
Directed by Rodrigo Plá
Music Box Films
Opens May 11, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas