Since Two Shots Fired, the new movie by Argentine director Martín Rejtman, begins with a young protagonist deciding to shoot himself, on a whim it seems, and then failing inexplicably at this attempt, I assumed initially that the movie was an embrace of that type of nihilism that examines the obvious senselessness of life with a necessarily detached precision. Rejtman seems to embrace this sort of emotional remove in the scenes that follow, in which the family members—in a series of austere, silent takes—never talk about this possible tragedy—or anything else for that matter. Initially, I was upset that the movie’s nihilism failed to capture the throbbing excitement of its own philosophical possibilities. So many nihilists—take Nietzsche, for example—are, ironically, quite passionate about their utter lack of belief. I kept thinking about so many great films that embrace suicide as an ideal—like Howard Hawks’s Road to Glory, where the protagonist goes to his certain death not because he has finally come to realize life’s inherent meaninglessness, but because he’s sacrificing his life for some noble aspiration. But here, the protagonist Mariano’s disinterest in life seems so utterly disinterested. That is, Rejtman’s nihilism struck me initially as not so much a philosophy as merely an observation of adolescent ennui.
When absurd elements start to creep into the story, I began to realize that the film was more complex than I originally thought. I noticed this initially in the scenes when Mariano rehearses with his Renaissance woodwind quartet and these amateur musicians struggle quietly but intensely when he plays some jarring harmonics during Palestrina’s more difficult polyphonic passages. Even so, although Rejtman does finally draw a connection between despair and the absurd, I wasn’t sure he ever found the proper balance. So much of the movie plays out like a catalog of art film tropes: like everyone else these days, he uses constantly ringing cell phones as his de rigueur metaphor for humanity’s lack of authentic human connection. His characters lumber through scenes, expressionless, speaking in monotones when they speak at all, without even the aid of a soundtrack to pep things up. But those of us who’ve actually experienced the monotony of despair—or the despair of monotony—know that the experience is actually much more poetic and painful than this.
Yet the movie continued to challenge me. At some point, the narrative morphs, so that the focus moves from what we assumed was the protagonist onto a new group of people, some of whom seemed like minor characters earlier and some of whom are completely new. Thus, the movie begins to unfold, not so much like an opening flower, given its tonal austerity; perhaps more like a deconstructed origami bird. And by the end, the story shifts yet again, so that the last scene registers like the poetic punctuation to some movie other than the one we just witnessed. It was as if by using narrative structure to emphasize the connections that do bind people who don’t seem to like each other, Rejtman was counteracting the disregard for his characters that he evinced from the beginning of the film. That is, by revealing the tenuous and shifting connections between these people only at the end, the film was teaching me to understand its own peculiarity. It made me want to watch it again, much more carefully, just as, arguably, the characters themselves need to examine their own absurdly tragic situation with a greater insight.