Actor-turned-writer-director Andrea Di Stefano has cooked up an oddity with Escobar: Paradise Lost. Though named after Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and giving Benicio Del Toro — in the title role — top billing, the film is more about the fate of fictional Canadian surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) than it is about Escobar. Nick is in Colombia living a kind of beach-bum life when he has the bad luck to fall for Escobar’s niece, Maria (Spanish TV actress Claudia Traisac). It is through her that he succumbs to Escobar’s charisma, becomes willfully blind to the real business and the violence, torture and murder that lies beneath Escobar’s champion-of-the-oppressed and loving, family-man persona. This is what is at the core of the movie. So if you’re looking for an Escobar biopic, this isn’t it.
This is essentially a combination of an innocence-corrupted-and-betrayed yarn and a fictional thriller built on a real character. That it works better in that second capacity may be because the line between innocence and stupidity is very thin and the film has trouble staying convincingly on the side of innocence. Hutcherson almost pulls it off through his purely likable screen persona, but there comes a point where dumb as a stump trumps likable. Fortunately, the thriller aspect kicks in for the final act and Di Stefano’s film truly comes into its own. The only problem with this is simply that it takes a while to get to this part. But when it does get there, the escalating sense of dread, then panic and then the inevitability of how it will play out is amazingly well judged and executed. I found the payoff well worth the wait. Others may not.
One thing that is hard to deny about the film overall is the power of Benicio Del Toro’s performance as Escobar. Yes, it is larger than life. I’m not sure how it could have been otherwise with this character. And Del Toro’s fairly obvious perfidy may unfairly exacerbate Nick’s stupidity, but that doesn’t change the fact that Del Toro has created a portrait of a fascinating monster. He makes you understand how people fell under his spell. (The Colombian government was a tremendous help here — something the film barely touches on.) But he also clues you in on the menacing undercurrents at every turn. However, it only slowly becomes apparent that his sole loyalty is ultimately to himself. By the end of the movie, he even suggests something more deeply disturbing. Even as a subordinate character, Del Toro owns the film. His presence, the threat of his presence, the sense of his reach pervades the movie, especially in its second half.
It should be noted that this is one of those Weinstein Radius releases. That basically means that its theatrical life is more a contractual obligation than anything. And that usually translates into a one-week engagement and quite possibly a limited number of showings a day. (This review will be updated online to reflect the showtimes. Update: The film plays twice daily — 5:05 and 10:25 p.m.) In other words, if you want to see Escobar, it would be wise not to put it off. Rated R for violence including grisly images.