The Whistlers, a crime drama from Romanian writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu, is very familiar in a lot of ways. Our hero, Cristi, played by Vlad Ivanov, is a crooked policeman who is caught up with drug-running gangsters who need him to keep them one step ahead of the law. There are double-crosses, betrayals, murders and shoot-outs, all the ingredients of a juicy gangster thriller, but this movie works itself into so many contortions, it can’t even breathe. It plays like a hollowed-out The Departed, but without the setup or satisfaction.
And that’s its biggest problem. The film feels like episode 5 of a series on Netflix, only you missed episodes 1 through 4. You skipped all the setup, so as all the plots and stories come together, not only are you lost as to who anyone is in relation to each other, you have no vested interest in what happens or why. I will say I loved the idea of jumping right in, skipping all that boring exposition that sometimes bogs a movie down, but it turns out all that exposition actually serves a purpose.
So I gave up pretty quickly on trying to figure out who everyone was and what their backstory was and whether they were good or bad and just tried to live in the moment of what was happening on screen—which may have been Porumboiu’s intent all along. But then we were left with the only plot in the movie that we are in on from start to finish, and that’s the subplot of Cristi going to the Canary Islands to learn an ancient whistling language, which is supposed to enable him to communicate with his gangster friends without the police knowing. Not only does this come off as silly in theory, in practice it’s even more bizarre. And after all the setup and presumed importance of this skill—it is the title of the movie, after all—it ends up being hardly used at all.
What ends up being a much more interesting recurring theme of The Whistlers, certainly more interesting and effective than the whistling, is the concept of surveillance. Whether it’s through hidden cameras or bugs or the classic sitting-in-cars-watching-the-house, the various ways we watch or listen to each other is a constant in this film, and creates an overall feeling of paranoia and mistrust that paired surprisingly well with my overall feeling of being in the dark. We are watching people watching other people and we don’t know what we’re really looking at, and neither do they. It may not be the best way to tell a coherent story, but it definitely created a mood that was unsettling and even titillating.
The Whistlers is beautifully shot, and Porumboiu certainly makes the most of the Canary Islands setting. The opening sequence is exquisitely done for setting the tone, and his use of music throughout the movie is balanced and effective. Much less effective, however, is Ivanov and his lack of any reasonable human emotion. The character of Cristi is our guide through the maze of characters, plot twists and machinations that swirl through this film and yet the actor playing him seems in a virtual coma throughout. Whether this is the actor’s style or a deliberate choice, it doesn’t connect in any way. I kept waiting for a payoff that never comes, both in his performance and from the film itself.
What we’re left with is all of the makings of an entertaining crime drama set in dramatic international locales, but it cuts too many corners and overly relies on familiarity of genre to overcome its severe lack of cohesiveness. Next time, give us a little more to go on.
The Whistlers is currently in select theaters from Magnolia Pictures.