Man, I’ve known some militant vegans in my time. Ones who are more than happy to shove their beliefs down your throat and make you feel guilty as sin for enjoying a burger. You know the type. As annoying as they can be, none of them are as passionate as the serial killer in writer-director Gabriel Grieco’s Still Life (Naturaleza Muerta), in which carnivores in a small Argentinian town are savagely butchered in a fashion reflecting the treatment of animals in a slaughterhouse. Ugly and brutal with a sharp sociopolitical edge, Still Life is an animal rights slasher-mystery that makes PETA’s approach to protest seem like an adorable pick-up game of checkers.
During the incredibly tense, well-staged prologue, the daughter of a wealthy cattle industry baron vanishes. Ambitious young journalist Jazmin (Luz Cipriot – who bears a striking resemblance to Natalie Portman in some angles) sees this story as an opportunity to advance her career, so she goes rogue with her loyal cameraman to investigate. She begins discovering links between the girl’s disappearance and a series of murders, which point to something nefarious within the local beef industry. As she digs deeper, she crosses paths with a local animal rights lecturer – a self-proclaimed one-man army educating folks on vegan lifestyle and why cow farts are depleting the ozone. A sketchy vegan farmer also turns up as a suspect and while Jazmin tries to make sense of the murders, she comes dangerously close to becoming one herself.
From the first frame she’s on screen, this is Luz Cipriot’s film, through and through. Still Life teeters on the edge of absurdity a few times, especially when the reveals start rolling out near the end, and it’s only Cipriot’s performance which helps keep it grounded. Resourceful, brave, and cunning, Jazmin is a strong female lead that’s easy to root for. She’s ambitious, but never overtly opportunistic to the point where she comes off as selfish. Most of the male characters are treated solely as suspects within the mystery, so they never really have time to be anything besides shady.
Grieco flirts with an exploration of the Argentinian cattle industry and its markets, which are deeply embedded in the country’s history and tradition. The film never becomes overtly political or preachy, however. It maintains a mystery atmosphere, with moments of pure slasher-horror mixed in throughout. It’s during these bouts of horror where Still Life loses its footing a bit – particularly during the climax, where things become a bit ridiculous and the tone spirals into near silliness. The typical horror beats are all there, but they feel forced, as if Grieco felt he needed to rush them in to hold the audience’s attention. This wasn’t the case though. His story of murder and cattle scandal was enough to engage me. These strained moments of brutality weaken the film’s overall tension and not even Cipriot’s performance can rescue it.
I mentioned the film’s prologue, which is wickedly nerve-wrenching. There’s also an epilogue, which is the polar opposite. It’s so painfully contrived and farcical that it shirks off the previous 90 minutes and dives headfirst into laughable slasher territory. There’s absolutely no reason for it to exist, unless Grieco is banking on a sequel. I sincerely hope that’s not the case because Still Life stands on its own as a unique sociopolitical slasher mystery with one helluva female lead. No need to franchise this bad boy.
* Warning: this movie does contain extremely graphic stock footage of animals being abused and butchered in slaughterhouses. If that type of thing turns your stomach, look away from the screen. Seriously, it’s gnarly.