As you’d expect in a movie called Escobar: Paradise Lost, more than a few scenes are devoted to gory shootouts and dead bodies. One scene that isn’t occurs about halfway through, when Pablo Escobar (Benicio del Toro) sits down with his favorite niece’s new husband Nick (Josh Hutcherson). The camera creeps toward them as they sit inside a car. It’s not just any car, but one riven with a hundred bullet holes. It’s Clyde Barrow’s car, Uncle Pablo says, as Nick ‘s face goes blank. You know, Pablo persists, Bonnie and Clyde? “Bonnie Parker died right where you’re sitting.”
If Nick still looks a little lost, you’ve grasped Pablo’s instruction long before this moment: Nick needs to be afraid of Pablo, just like everyone else. Nick — a mightily pale Canadian surfer visiting Medellín in 1991 — apparently missed this memo, but you know the Colombian drug lord does his business by innuendo and threat. For this, del Toro is perfect. He looms in frames even when he’s off to the side, pressed into a lower corner or out of focus. And he looms here, staring intently at Nick, who appears very married to his cluelessness, just as he is to his beautiful wife Maria (Claudia Traisac), also doggedly oblivious to her uncle’s brutality.
Granted, Nick doesn’t have your access to hindsight and history. And of course his abject cluelessness is designed to illustrate Escobar’s seductive powers, as he falls in love with Maria and then goes along with Pablo, even though he should know better. But this narrative design — where you know so much more than Nick — is distracting from its start, making you feel both too smart and too dumb for watching. By the time of the scene in the bullet-riddled car (a scene that departs from history, as Escobar’s famously “strange car collection” did not include this 1934 Ford), simultaneously so violent and so not violent, you’re long past Nick’s realization that his in-law is a monster.
This gap in knowledge makes it difficult to sympathize with Nick’s choices, as when he overlooks the murders of local gangster boys after he tells Pablo they’ve roughed him up or skips over Pablo’s armed guards or suitcases stuffed of cash or even his minions’ cleaning up bloody weapons. When Pablo explains the importance of loyalty and family and some other nonsense, Nick looks vaguely worried as he nods, compliant in order to survive. Escobar, who’s seen this look a thousand times, accepts it for what he wants it to be, utter fidelity.
As unconvincing as Nick’s dilemma might be, Andrea Di Stefano’s movie remains committed to it, as it does to the mystery of Pablo. That mystery depends on adhering to Nick’s inane perspective, on not exploring Escobar’s career. So, Escobar: Paradise Lost doesn’t look at his election to government office, his donations to institutions from the church to schools to soccer, his notorious bribery and policy of “plata o plomo” (silver or lead), his popularity or his elusiveness. As Nick and the camera gaze repeatedly on Maria’s lovely smile or white dresses, Pablo shows up for brief moments, whether splashing with thrilled children in the pool at his estate Hacienda Nápoles, taking group photos of the family, or arriving for a brief visit disguised as a Catholic padre. In all his forms, Pablo is as compelling as Nick is bland.
In large part this effect is a function of the bit of history the movie uses as plot, that in 1991, Escobar agrees to enter La Catedral prison following his assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. While the last third of the movie spends long minutes explaining an elaborately brutal scheme to hide away his fortune in mountain villages and caves, Uncle Pablo keeps his distance, spending precious last minutes with his young kids and sad wife (Laura Londoño). As with all the other violence he commits, Pablo here insists that his motive is to take care of his family, a point hammered home during his journey to the prison gates. Here he imagines seeing a grieving relative, accusing him of murder and for a few minutes, he looks like others have looked in his presence, horrified.
You’re hardly surprised that he gets over this emotional hump, but the way he does is as effectively dreadful as the scene in Bonnie and Clyde’s car. Asked whether he wants to pray with a priest who comes to help him get through the gates, Pablo can get this far: “When you talk to God,” he instructs, “Remind him what I did for the church.” But when the priest tries to assure him God will keep watch over him and his family, Pablo has another idea. He’s bringing a telescope with him to his cell, he says, adding, “It will be me who will keep an eye on Him.” The priest looks suitably appalled. Pablo’s mystery remains suitably unsolved.