When focused and self-contained, Mariano Cohn’s 4×4 slowly accelerates until seemingly primed to peel out toward a hectic finale. However, its attempt to finally peel out in telling the story of a small-time Argentinian thief held prisoner inside a deathtrap SUV, the film ultimately careens off the road into broader, muddled social issues that never quite ram home.
After cleverly breaking into a parked, pristine vehicle in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood, a young man named Ciro takes pleasure in swiping the stereo and urinating on the back seat. It’s clear he is making a statement against the haves in favor of the have-nots, while at the same time imagining himself in the kind of lifestyle that possesses such a smoothly upholstered vehicle and the chic sunglasses that come with it. The petty heist turns on a dime, however, as Ciro soon discovers that the SUV’s doors will not open, the windows don’t break, and there is effectively no way out of this machine.
After stupidly wounding himself in the leg while trying to shoot his way out (though somehow not suffering the deafness that would surely follow), Ciro receives a call from the owner: the calm voice on the other end of the line has been the victim of too many assaults and robberies to simply stand by anymore, and has decided to take matters into his own hands. He has created a trap, and has no intention of letting this street punk get away with something for which he feels society has far too long turned a blind eye to. Ciro is here to suffer for his sins, and over the course of the next fews days and nights, slow suffering is just what 4×4 depicts.
At first, the resourceful Ciro roots around like a caged animal, testing any possible weaknesses in his posh cell. A few cursory lines fill him and the audience in on how simple solutions to this predicament, like banging on the windows at passersby or honking the horn, won’t draw anyone’s attention — even the occasional ticket-giving police officer — and as long as viewers can buy into the albeit flawed logic of the premise, 4×4 rolls along as a smooth ride. Without food or water, Ciro’s rebelliousness is slowly broken down, and he is forced to engage with a mysterious man whose ultimate endgame is still somewhat unclear.
The first two-thirds of 4×4 takes place almost exclusively inside the vehicle, eliciting a growing tension from the claustrophobia. The confined space at times can feel suffocating even to those merely watching, though Cohn certainly keeps the visuals from getting dull by consistently finding new angles from which to shoot. That variety is of extreme importance during that first hour, as it not only prevents the same boredom that Ciro experiences from setting in on the audience, but also cleverly constructs the space to a point where viewers can practically sketch the layout of the vehicle from memory, giving the film a great (if somewhat intentionally torturous) you-are-there feel.
Throughout, Peter Lanzani admirably holds the camera’s attention as the increasingly beleaguered Ciro, managing to portray street-sharpened instincts beneath layers of general dimwittedness. He also finely balances Ciro’s foggy version of morality against earning sympathy for someone who is essentially still a violent criminal. It’s a turn that earns more respect as 4×4 goes on, as Lanzani simultaneously shows his darker side while reflexively casing potential neighborhood victims, yet also depicts an inner tenderness in his interactions with a chirping cricket that happens to be riding shotgun.
Where 4×4 ultimately stalls is in its final act, which opens up the scope to the point that the film’s engine becomes flooded. Cohn is working with complex social issues here, but tries to wrap things up too fast and too neatly. The introduction of the tormentor, up to then a mere voice that’s both warm and chilling at the same time, ultimately backfires in a series of diatribes from both both sides of the problem. These platitudes are too tidy to be effective, and land with a resounding thud.
Still, the simmering that precedes the fizzle showcases how much can be done with so little. 4×4 can’t maintain an entire trip on cruise control, but while that tense, claustrophobic ride lasts, its an entertaining one.