“Based on real events” reads the opening title card for Netflix’s The Crimes That Bind. The Argentinian drama is from director Sebastian Schindel, whose kind of fantastical paranoia thriller The Son was most likely an underwatched film for Netflix last year. Despite the differences in the two films, they share a director who has a firm grip on the more ambiguous elements of visual storytelling.
The Gist: Alicia (Cecilia Roth of All About My Mother) enjoys a comfortable life of retirement — a spacious apartment in Buenos Aires, a live-in housekeeper and in-home yoga lessons with a few of her close similarly moneyed friends. Ignacio (Miguel Angel Sola) is retired, but spends a lot of time at the office anyway. Their housekeeper, Gladys (Yanina Avila), has a three-year-old son, and Alicia dotes on him, possibly because Gladys is mentally challenged, the father is AWOL and the boy is a sweet, energetic presence. Alicia sure seems to be filling the void left by her inability to see her own grandson. The takes a call from a prison inmate, something she seems to have done before; it’s her son, Daniel (Benjamin Amadeo), and his estranged wife has charged him with sexual assault.
The script leaps forward in time: A woman lies in a hospital bed, her requests for help being ignored. She looks down, and seems slightly surprised to be cuffed to the bedrail. There’s blood on her clothes. It’s Gladys. Soon after, she meets with a public defender, who tells her she’s being charged with first-degree murder. Whenever someone asks her a question, several seconds pass before she replies. She won’t tell her story to the lawyer, so she sits with a psychologist, and speaks of her childhood in vague and simplistic terms that clearly translate to a case of severe abuse. A tear rolls down her cheek.
Alicia and Ignacio find themselves in the courtroom for two different trials, the timelines for which soon catch up with each other. Daniel and his wife Marcela (Sofia Gala) give their lengthy testimonies, and he’s either telling some heartwrenching truth or is a total sociopath. Ignacio gives his testimony as to Gladys’ character during her murder trial. Alicia and Ignacio differ on their approach to Daniel — she wants to use their money to buy whatever influence they can afford to get him off the hook, while Ignacio seems vaguely skeptical about his innocence. In between, we get shadowy, nightmarish scenes that seem out of a horror movie, of a long, dark hallway to a bathroom splattered with blood.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Retirement dramas such as Ordinary Love, The Wife and 45 Years come to mind.
Performance Worth Watching: The film adheres tightly to Alicia and Gladys’ points-of-view, and although the characters are written within familiar arcs, Roth and Avila’s commitment to nurturing their inner conflicts adds depth to the story.
Memorable Dialogue: “He’d nap with me,” Gladys says of her father.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The key to The Crimes That Bind might be that we can see objectively where all this is heading, but Alicia can’t. Clarity doesn’t come easy for someone with considerable bias and who may be in a state of denial (which is an important thematic thread here). Maybe that’s a charitable way of assessing the film’s predictable drama, but its surface-level plotting isn’t as crucial as the subtext’s feminist tones. Late in the film, Alicia learns something crucial, and the film isn’t about this reveal, but what she does with this piece of information. A plot device makes her ultimate decision far too simple to execute, but we shouldn’t let quibbles get in the way of the larger discussion here.
Toxic masculinity plays a large role in this story, and while it’s mostly obvious in some characters and quite murky in others, Schindel and co-screenwriter Pablo Del Teso quietly emphasize the need for Alicia, a boomer-generation woman, to recognize her complicity and consider the futures of her grandson and Gladys’ boy. None of this subject matter is particularly subtle or revelatory, but it’s nonetheless compelling, and Schindel maintains a tight narrative of heavy drama, light on the melo, lest the film tread TV-movie-of-the-week territory. Unlike other domestic dramas in this vein, the movie isn’t interested in manipulating us, but telling the story of a woman who defies the ridiculous assertion that people can be too old and set in their ways to change.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Crimes That Bind isn’t always well-written or original, but it’s absorbing in its execution of character drama and theme.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.