A not so busy street. A neighborhood watch community where more homes sport security signs than don’t. A luxury SUV with tinted windows and an unlocked door. This is the setting into which director/co-writer Mariano Cohn drops both viewers and his unlucky protagonist with the sharp, (mostly) single location Argentinian thriller 4×4. While said protagonist is in for a very bad time indeed, though, viewers are gifted with a tight, smartly crafted tale of suspense, survival, and social commentary.
Ciro (Peter Lanzani) knows a score when he sees one, and after confirming the SUV’s alarm isn’t activated he hops in, closes the door behind him, and begins to ransack the vehicle’s contents. He disconnects and removes the expensive stereo/navigation unit, dons a stolen pair of sunglasses, and even urinates all over the rear leather seats on a lark, but when he tries to exit the car the doors refuse to budge. The windows won’t break, the interior panels hide no easy release levers, and it’s both soundproofed and bulletproof — something he discovers the hard way after firing his gun only to have the bullet ricochet into his leg. And then the car’s phone rings with a call from its owner, Dr. Enrique Ferrari, a man who’s been robbed 28 times before and is not going to take it anymore.
4×4 — a title which does double duty as both the kind of vehicle Ciro is occupying and the size (give or take) of the vehicular coffin he now finds himself in — wastes no time getting started. Ciro is in the car in a matter of minutes, and he’s already shot himself in the leg within ten. Cohn (along with co-writer Gastón Duprat) work their way through numerous scenarios across its less than ninety minute running time managing both suspense and surprises. Its greatest accomplishment, though, is turning its actively dickish prick of a protagonist into someone we can’t help but root for.
Ciro is not a nice guy, and Enrique’s perspective — one that comes clear through a series of short conversations — marks him as a relatable character who’s worthy of our empathy. After growing up in a small community where no one locked their doors, he’s saddened by today’s world making it impossible to trust those around you. He tells Ciro about being both frightened and disgusted by the time his daughter and grandson were terrorized by vicious burglars, and it’s impossible not to see this as a valid, albeit misguided, attempt at justice.
Viewers would unquestionably be on his side in almost any other scenario, especially as the doctor recounts the various crimes he and his family have endured over the years, but unlike Paul Kersey or any number of other Death Wish-infused vigilantes the punishment in 4×4 seems to outweigh the crime by ten-fold. Hours then days pass, and as Ciro’s leg grows infected he succumbs to Enrique’s whims blasting heat then cold then heat again and even begins to eat car manual pages for imagined sustenance. Audiences will feel a shift in their sympathies aided by revelations both personal and societal, moments of weakness, and even Ciro’s kindness towards a cricket that’s also trapped inside the car. We don’t actually want him to die in this steel and glass box, and soon we’re actively cheering on his attempts to outwit the good doctor and escape this prison.
It’s a tricky balance and progression, and 4×4‘s success is do as much to the script as to Lanzani’s performance. Ciro is clearly enjoying his own jerky behavior and continues being an aggressive prick once he’s locked inside the car, but his suffering soon becomes apparent. Enrique demands his ID number (think social security number) and uses it to discover information about Ciro’s past, and that combined with the doctor’s veiled threats and commentary on his neighbors leaves it unclear who exactly is the villain here. Mentions of Ciro’s loved ones and observations on a life that offered few options are every bit as painful to the young man as the wound festering in his leg, and Lanzani makes it difficult not to care about his lesser of two evils.
4×4 is a tight, twisty thriller that satisfies on its face as pure entertainment, but Cohn’s film also manages some commentary on society’s ills. Sure, crooks and criminals are bad, but a system that values things more than people can never be truly fair. The idea moves from subtext to text in a slightly less sure of itself third act, but it’s no less engaging a journey for it.