Movie Review: The Whistlers (2019)

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Told to put his finger in his mouth like a gun and let the bullet come out of his ear, a Romanian narcotics detective playing both sides of the law tries to learn the whistling language of La Gomera in writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu's The Whistlers.

Employed like morse code so that the police think that, instead of criminals passing mellifluous messages back and forth, it's simply birds singing in the open air, the study of "El Silbo," practiced on the "pearl of the Canary Islands," is a novel approach to the con man movie subgenre. Enticed by the prospect of watching Porumboiu's shady characters converse through foreign sing-speak versus traditional film noir double speak, what we assume will be a big part of the grift at the start of The Whistlers becomes little more than a barely used gimmick by the time we reach the end.

A handsomely made homage to vintage noir, '50s westerns, and Hitchcockian tales of suspense, nonetheless, what the film lacks in substance, it strives to make up for with sensory sleight of hand. Using a dynamic soundtrack, bold use of color, and Edward Hopper inspired production design and blocking to distract us whenever our mind starts to wander, Porumboiu ensures that Whistlers remains visually and audibly interesting, even when it doesn't make a lick of sense.

Working as much for the underworld as he does with the police, the film revolves around Cristi, a Bucharest narcotics detective (played by Vlad Ivanov) who finds himself dominated by a trifecta of women, each trying to pull him in a different direction. In addition to the Catholic guilt he gets from his beloved mother (Julieta Szönyi), who's just hoping her middle aged son will settle down, Cristi is torn by his allegiance to his demanding boss Magda (Rodica Lazar), who wants to lock up the man that the alluring femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) wants him to break free.

Paying tribute to the women of noir with allusions to Marlene Dietrich's no-nonsense roles in the formidable Magda and the overt influence of Rita Hayworth's Gilda on her Whistlers namesake, as often is the case in the genre, Marlon's well-played, underutilized siren is easily the most exciting character in the entire film.

Hindered by its convoluted structure, which swings back and forth in the timeline as it shifts from one character's point-of-view to the next, The Whistlers threatens to confuse its viewers to the point of apathy for at least half of its ninety-seven minute running time. And once we finally deduce as much as we can about who Porumboiu's underwritten characters are, what's going on, and why, we realize that the movie's reliance upon smoke and mirrors wasn't just a style choice after all, but a necessity.

Attempting to use the coded whistling language as a motif for the film where the ensemble players say one thing and mean another in an effort to double cross before they are double crossed, Porumboiu follows suit — wielding noir, Hitchcock, pop and operatic music, and even John Wayne iconography in the exact same way — to distract us from Whistlers's threadbare plot.

Hoping to reward our patience for sticking with the confounding film until we've reached the end credits, in a dazzling (if all too brief) final sequence straight out of To Catch a Thief, The Whistlers lights up the Canary Island night sky with fireworks, opera, and colored lights.

The result of placing his fingers in his mouth and firing his ideas at the screen, while it's clear that Porumboiu has a strong vision for the type of film he wants to make — if not the plot — by the time we've deciphered his ultimately empty message, we don't feel much like whistling along.

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