Movies about corrupt cops have been around almost as long as cops have. Not because cops are inherently corrupt mind you, but because the police are people just like the rest of us. And people are inherently corrupt.
The general narrative in a film about police corruption usually involves a lead character who struggles to avoid falling in with the dirty boys in blue and subsequently sees his life and career endangered. Alternatively, the lead can be corrupt in entertainingly acceptable ways usually involving a Dirty Harry-ish attitude towards suspect rights.
No Rest For the Wicked takes a different tact all together, and the resulting movie becomes a thrilling exploration of the old ‘ends justify the means’ axiom. Santos Trinidad (José Coronado) is not a cool cop like Harry Callahan. He’s an ornery, disgruntled drunk having a rough night trying to find an open bar. He finally reaches the end of his patience and kills three innocent bar employees whose only crime was refusing him service. A fourth person escapes, and Santos sets off after him to silence the only possible witness to his crimes. Santos is a bad guy, clearly, and not someone to root for… except his investigation soon reveals some secrets about that potential witness. Secrets that could lead to far more deaths if he isn’t stopped.
So now who do you root for?
Santos kills the three bar employees with little remorse for his actions, and he cleans up any evidence of his presence with equal detachment. Even so, Detectives Leiva (Juanjo Artero) and Chacón (Helena Miguel) begin an investigation into the shooting and slowly find themselves on Santos’ trail even if they don’t know it yet. Santos is working against the clock to save his own ass, and it’s a race to see who reaches the witness first.
And that’s where the film truly stands apart from its brethren. Santos is the lead character here, but you’d be hard pressed to call him a protagonist. Casey Affleck’s The Killer Inside Me approached similar ground, but that film was as much a black comedy as anything else and that tone helped deflect the central question of whether or not to cheer on the immoral madman. There are very few laughs here.
As the investigation widens the implications grow immensely, and details emerge that dwarf Santos’ earlier actions in their impact. They never excuse or exclude them though as co-writer/director Enrique Urbizu doesn’t let us forget Santos’ crimes. That’s as much due to Coronado’s fiercely carefree performance as it is to Urbizu’s tight script and taut direction. Information and names come at viewers quickly, but Urbizu keeps things focused and fast-moving. Much of the film is the investigation, but action scenes are handled with a crackling power prefaced by real suspense. That’s never truer than at the film’s conclusion up to and including the final frame.
No Rest For the Wicked is a viscerally exciting police thriller that sees two halves of a pincer close in on a deadly conspiracy with hundreds of lives in the balance. The fact that it reportedly bears some truth to real life incidents makes it that much more heartstopping and outrageous. Populist entertainment has trained viewers to openly accept and embrace bad guys, but how bad is too bad? And is that line a malleable one…?
The Upside: Suspenseful and challenging navigation of immorality and evil; Coronado gives a spectacular performance as a morally repugnant defender of justice; sudden pops of violence excite and entertain
The Downside: Ending may leave some viewers wanting more information
On the Side: No Rest For the Wicked won big at the 2012 Goya Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, where it took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and more