Critics and press releases will call this a “gritty prison drama,” and it is, but that is selling Dark Blood short. It’s also a character study of a man trapped and descending slowly into a hell not of his own making, but one of his choice. Beautifully filmed, strongly directed by Colombian director Harold Trompetero, and powerfully acted by John Leguizamo (an actor I fear has been vastly underrated for both his comic and dramatic skills), Dark Blood can be painful to watch. It unfolds like a Greek tragedy, with the degradations, humiliations and bodily and emotional abuse heaped on Misael Rodriguez (Leguizamo) as inevitable as they are apparent, unfolding in front of the audience like an accident we are powerless to stop and yet unable to look away as we must watch what we know must happen.
Dark Blood opens with a dizzying montage of Misael being spattered with blood as he beats someone out of frame. The audience is next shown Misael entering prison for beating Carlos, his son’s teacher, to death, believing his son was molested and then murdered by the man. Misael’s public defender thinks she can get him a plea bargain that will allow him to only serve a year in prison, but what a prison it is. The guards and the inmates are a functioning society ruled by psychopaths, most notably chief warder Sergeant Caceres, a sadistic predator with a sexual desire for Misael. The prison itself a model of filth and squalor. Misael slowly learns to negotiate this world, alerting Pascual, one of the older, more influential inmates, when guards are approaching as he shivs an enemy. Pascual then befriends and helps Misael, who is also befriended by the prison dog.
During a conjugal visit, Clara, his wife, tells him “The only thing I needed was to feel loved,” and how she was so alone. Misael can finally relate, but the information is simply another nail in his heart. With each negotiation and trade between himself and the guards or other prisoners, Misael slips deeper into the darkness, eventually sacrificing almost everything to secure a visit from his other son, Pablo. “Blood leaves a mark,” another prisoner tells him, in what just might be one of the themes of the movie. Visually this idea is supported by the fact that after each beating or assault, Misael has more scars, more visible marks of his wounds, both physical and psychological.
Again, Dark Blood is not a film easily watched or thrown on as a double feature with a slasher flick and a bucket of popcorn. It is horrific and horrifying. There are no jump scares, there are no CG effects. This is, however, a horror film, in that the fear, despair, and disturbance that it provokes in the viewer is something I imagine Rob Zombie aspires to. Leguizamo doesn’t just carry the film, he lifts it up, throws it on his back, and slow-walks it up the mountain. Looking for a mindless night’s entertainment? Look elsewhere. Looking for a well-crafted study of human degradation that leaves you needing a shower? Sit down and sit through Dark Blood.