Woodpeckers sits somewhere between a tragic love story and a gripping prison drama
When one hears the title Woodpeckers, one might imagine a tender tale of gentle souls. It conjures up images of unlikely individuals caught up in an unlikely situation, making due with they have. Whether it is the thought of benevolent birds or the soft ticking of their beaks on wood, Woodpeckers surely sounds like a soft spoken film. And while José María Cabral’s Woodpeckers certainly contains much of that, it is a film that is surrounded by brutish violence, fast-paced cuts, and a gripping prison drama that gives Oz a run for its money.
Woodpeckers tells the story of Julian (Jean Jean), who is thrown into an overcrowded Santo Domingo prison after having been caught stealing a motorcycle. His frizzy ponytail is cut, his money is partially stolen, and his reputation is one that he must build from the ground up. Soon, Julian makes enough deals, bribes enough people, and steals enough coveted items to make a name for himself. That’s when the hot-headed Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario) begins to take notice of the gangly Haitian-blooded thief. Having been transferred out of cell 6 after a scuffle, Manuary asks Julian (or rather demands) that he act as a messenger between him and his girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez).
Julian reluctantly agrees, and is taught the rudimentary sign language that many of the inmates use as a means of satiating their burning desire to talk to the pretty girls across the way at the much more civil woman’s prison. But soon, Manuary is pushed further and further out of the picture after Yanelly grows more and more infatuated with the soft-spoken and endearing Julian. Before long, the jealous Manuary begins plotting his act of vengeance upon the budding Julian and Yanelly.
While Woodpeckers may sound like a slow-paced, quiet romance on paper, it is seldom that. Instead, Cabral works tirelessly to ensure that the film is as gripping and suspenseful as any prison-set drama. Woodpeckers exists in a strangely mesmerizing in between–it is as action-packed as Kill the Gringo (2012) and as thought provoking as Hunger (2008). And the film frequently oscillates between the two, at times showcasing an affectionate filmic language that lets the film gently meander on its own, while at the same time, dipping its toes into captivating moments of violence, retribution, and damaged relationships.
It makes for an entertaining piece of filmmaking, allowing the talented actors to flush out their characterizations and showcase the brutal psychology of prison life. Furthermore, Cabral’s engaging direction, coupled with the personalized handheld camera work of cinematographer Hernan Herrera, it is no surprise that Woodpeckers was not only the first Santo Domingo film to screen at Sundance this year, but it was also the Dominican Republic’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 90th Academy Awards. With so of the film demonstrating the underbelly of prison life—as well as the sincerity and humanity that is surprisingly attached to it—Cabral has created a titillating cinematic work that showcases the dichotomous existence of brute violence and fledgling love in one of the most brutal environments.
The film’s stylistic efforts change several times in the film, making for an intriguing–if not ostentatious–endeavor by Cabral. He begins his film with a long take behind Julian as he is being transported by bus to the prison. The first cut is two-and-a-half minutes in, wherein we are yet again focused on the back of Julian’s head as he walks down a hall to the medical examiner’s office. In a similar vein to the opening sequence of Blues Brothers, we are seeing our protagonist undergo the rudimentary practices of administrative prison duties. As a matter of fact, it takes a full five-minutes before we are shown Julian’s apprehensive and bruised face.
To many, these initial few minutes demonstrate an affinity for the stylistic. These are arthouse conventions that, in many ways, live up to the tender imagery that a title like Woodpeckers invokes in one’s mind. But by the thirty-minute mark, it becomes abundantly apparent that those opening stylistic undertakings are but a method in which to pull audiences into a gripping, emotional and high-octane adventure of love, betrayal, jealousy, pride, and more jealousy. Cabral is a talented director—there is no arguing that. And at the young age of 29, Cabral has demonstrated that this is a seemingly inherent quality, one that he has managed to hone over his last five feature films. And with Woodpeckers being his most successful endeavor yet, there is much to look forward to with the Dominican Republic’s pride and joy.
Woodpeckers was released September 15. Check the film out now in select theaters.