Michel Franco’s NEW ORDER is a film that is incredibly disturbing and is without question a brutal work of art. As a reviewer, I normally watch a lot of films in the horror genre. Admittedly, I am somewhat inured to violence and cruelty as it is a normal part of genre films. NEW ORDER is a horror film, even though it is the story of normal people with no supernatural elements or masked serial killers. It is a horror film like Threads is a horror film, but it is even more realistic because revolts and repression like this are happening all over the world. It is shocking and an indictment of human cruelty and injustice. It is an indictment of corrupt governments and their military. It is an indictment of the rich who think that things will never change and shows how the innocent are frequently the ones who pay the price for the machinations of evil men. How that corruption can become endemic and spreads throughout a society. It is the terror of being in the hands of butchers who care nothing for human life, only their basest desires and greed, and the men in power who hold the butchers’ reins. Those powerful men who only care about retaining power and use others to retain that power at any cost. A place where there is truly no justice and no hope.
NEW ORDER starts with a totally black screen and a series of seemingly disconnected, brief scenes with the color green predominant. You see elderly patients being removed from their beds in a hospital. The camera opens to a painting by Omar Rodriguez-Graham titled Only The Dead Have Seen The End Of War. It is Daniel and Marianne’s wedding day. They are a beautiful and privileged Latino couple with rich and powerful parents who have a grand home with a modern design and artwork. They are very much in love and Marianne is an empathetic and good-hearted person. You start seeing alarming events around the edges of the happy gathering. You start seeing a cloud forming overhead. An older man who used to work for the family comes to ask for money to pay for an operation for his wife, Elisa, who also worked for them and who Marianne loves. You see her mother and other members of her family scoff and doubt the man’s word. One guest arrives covered in green paint and her mother turns on a faucet and green-colored water comes out of the tap. You can feel a slow sense of dread building as the family and guests party and as individual members start to notice signs of chaos at the edges of their vision. Then, all Hell breaks loose.
I should issue a trigger warning. This film contains scenes of violence, rape, and murder on men and women. Most of the violence and rape is implied rather than explicitly shown, but it’s actually a bit more disturbing because of that. Most of the horror is shown in the faces of victims being assaulted or waiting for their turn and through the shrieks of terror, moans of pain, and screams of fear. There is also explicit male and female full-frontal nudity, none of which is exploitative, it is just part of the horror. NEW ORDER is not here to lull you into complacency. NEW ORDER is here to shove the horrors of war, revolution, and corrupt governments into your face so you can no longer ignore them. For all of this, NEW ORDER is still filled with exquisite and artful visuals which is possibly the thing that affronts your sensibilities the most. Even while all this suffering is being visited on mostly innocent people, there’s still beauty. NEW ORDER seems to confirm that the universe is indeed indifferent to human anguish and depravity.
You may be saying to yourself, why would I want to subject myself to such emotional punishment? So, now I will tell you a story.
When my family wanted to go camping at the beach, we would go down to Baja California, specifically to the beaches in Rosarito and Ensenada. One time we were there and a young white guy was getting drunk and out of hand at night. He was alone and making a spectacle of himself. The male members of my family tried to talk some sense into him. They tried to tell him that being a white guy in Mexico was different from being a white guy in the States. That he wasn’t safe acting like a drunk idiot because he was alone and clearly an American. They told him that sometimes the Federales (the Mexican police) had a nasty habit of picking up unwise and unruly Americans and holding them for ransom. Dear reader, he didn’t listen and the Federales did pick him up. Maybe they threw him in the drunk tank and let him out the next morning or maybe he was essentially kidnapped. We never found out. But my uncles and grandfather tried to warn him and he would not listen. As an American, he didn’t understand the danger that he was in while in Mexico. While systemic injustice exists in America, we are relatively privileged compared to other parts of the world. In places in Central and South America, American attitude and privilege means nothing. Movies like this exist to tell you the dark truth of what’s going on behind the scenes in many different parts of the world. While you may have read about the genocides and people being disappeared in so-called “banana republics”, that doesn’t really bring home the terror of the evil perpetrated on the people of those countries. NEW ORDER does. I think it would be in many people’s best interest if they had a firm grasp on exactly how bad fascism can be and to learn that they never want that to happen here. Also, it would probably be a great idea if we stopped using our power to destabilize other countries for our own benefit and inflict this kind of destruction and woe on them.
Just a thought.
The predominant color of the film is green. Green is a color in the Mexican flag and is symbolic of liberty. It is the color of the revolutionaries. Green had been used before in revolts, like the Iranian Green Movement or The Persian Spring in 2009. There is the slate grey of the walls of the rich family’s house that look like a prison. The anger and violence of the revolt is fueled by the rage of the underclass. The more indigenous and darker-skinned have had enough of waiting patiently to be treated like human beings worthy of some of society’s good things. Decades and generations of anger have burst free into country-wide rage of murder, violence, and looting. The government and the rich classes have taught their people well. While you could see this violence as a terrible thing, and it is, it is a reaction to this exact type of violence and injustice that the revolutionaries have lived under all their lives. When you violently repress and put your boot on the throat of a people, you teach them that violence is the only way to redress their wrongs. You give them very little choice but to be as brutal as you are. Then, you get to use even more brutal tactics to repress that bid for freedom again and clamp down on human rights even harder when you regain control. You have also taught your police force and military (same thing) that being out for yourself is all that matters and that anything goes.
Do you see how that works?
Writer, director, and producer Michel Franco (After Lucia, Chronic) has constructed a ferocious film that has no pity or mirth. It’s not a dark comedy of class structures, it is a savage deconstruction of how the rich and powerful stay in power and use everyone, even the privileged classes, as meat for their grinder. As you see the pile of naked human bodies, as the camera pans over them, you see that those men in power have no respect or regard for human life, other than their own. The film is every bit as brutal as it needs to be to pound the lesson into the brains of people in denial that this could never be them or that this is somehow justified. It’s wrong and we need to stop it. Portrayal is not endorsement and, in the case of NEW ORDER, it is the exact opposite. The mega-rich and powerful get away with this for exactly that reason. Because you never believe that anyone would be this evil. You never think it might be you. You are bought off with promises and toys. They know you will never shove them up against the wall and demand change from them.
As I mentioned earlier, the violence in the film is largely built in the audience’s mind through sound and expression. Much like in Tobe Hooper’s brilliant The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, your mind imagines the violence more than your eyes see it. You hear the terrified screams and sobs and you see the horror in the actors’ faces. The actors in NEW ORDER, particularly Naian González Norvind as Marianne, but right down to the nameless actor who plays a revolutionary who holds the gun on the crowd of wedding guests is performing at a level of realism and excellence that makes this film dazzlingly powerful. The writing is perfect. The plot gives hope and then snatches it away over and over and each time it becomes more shattering than the last. You would think that you would become numb to the horror after a while, but you don’t. Because you believe it.
The symbolism of Omar Rodriguez-Graham’s painting Only The Dead Have Seen The End Of War is brilliant. First, the rich family has it on their wall as a self-congratulatory trophy, underlining their supposed sophistication and intelligence, but they don’t understand it. I don’t know for sure, but I think that the painting might be a reimagining of Picasso’s Guernica, the famous anti-war and anti-fascist painting. The family uses the painting for status not because they share the sentiment of the artist. When the revolutionaries arrive and the looting and destruction begin, they start angrily defacing the painting. In their anger, they too do not understand the artist’s intent.
Yves Cape (Holy Motors) is the cinematographer and has done a similarly fantastic job with NEW ORDER. The style is a naturalistic realism that seems to absorb light into itself even in the indoor jail scenes. The horror of the scenes in the film seems to be hungry not only for blood, human suffering, and possessions, but for sacrifice. It is like a black hole in space, swallowing everything that comes near. Even something as small as the play of emergency vehicle lights on plants growing on the side of a wall is fraught with meaning through Cape’s lighting. The sound department has outdone itself with the sounds that contribute so much to the chilling atmosphere. Jesús Gutiérrez Chávez (Foley artist), Enrique Fernández Tanco (Sound Designer, Supervising Sound Editor), José Fernández Tanco (Sound Editor), Alejandro de Icaza (Supervising Sound Editor, Sound Designer), Juan Pablo Omana (Foley Mixer/Foley Editor), Chema Ramos Roa (Foley Supervisor, Additional Dialogue Recordings) and the whole sound department, Stephanie K. Ripstein (Casting), Cormac Roth (Original Music), and Mauricio Gonzo Arroyo (Music Supervision) all deserve applause.
NEW ORDER is an urgent and necessary warning to the world and an elegy for the many people executed under fascist governments all over the world, but especially in Central and South America. It spares no one with its powerful, beautiful, and dread-filled filmmaking. There is no solace and no sop to sentimentality here. If anything, it shows that these evil men actively target the empathetic as well as powerless people because they enjoy it. It has been said that rich people should be required to watch it, but I think everyone should. You should know what is being done in your name before one day an angry crowd marches to your front door and demands that you personally answer for it.
NEW ORDER is now in theaters.