For as copious and dime-a-dozen film noir crime stories were at a time, and how prolific their influence has remained over the decades, there’s always the odd film that comes along that puts its own little spin on the formula. The tropes are often there; hard-boiled criminals pulling no punches, plans gone astray, men flung like ants at the whims of fate and, oftentimes, the women that pull the strings of the story. Certainly a machismo-fueled style, The Whistlers–hailing from Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu–doesn’t necessarily reinvent the cinematic wheel, but it does a hell of a time keeping your attention and hitting cinematic beats we’ve all come to know and love.
Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Release date: October 6, 2019 (NYFF)
Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) is a Romanian cop who’s come to have an association with the less-than-legal side of things, including the suave Zsolt’s (Sabin Tambrea) drug-smuggling enterprise. When Zsolt is busted, the head honcho takes heed, femme fatale Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) coming into play and strongarming Cristi into an elaborate scheme to free Zsolt. But before we can fly, we need to learn to… whistle?
It’s reasoned by the criminals that, with Cristi under surveillance by his own colleagues, there needs to be a way for jailbreak details to be communicated without alerting the police. Traveling to Gomera, a gorgeous mountain region and one of the Canary Islands, Cristi is put through instructions to learn the local language: whistling.
If it sounds silly, know that it sort of is. Porumboiu directs with an incredible efficiency, scenes looking and feeling sharp, but there’s an underlying sense of humor to The Whistlers. The hotel where Cristi meets for some of his illicit dealings features a stark, rigid bellhop who tends to the hotel’s constantly-spinning, very loud record player, which always bellows opera through the halls. “You’re not worried you’ll lose customers with this music?” Cristi asks, to which the employee responds that it’s the hotel’s hope to “educate” their clientele.
But if the humor is underlying, let it be said how it is just that; The Whistlers is a crime drama first and foremost, with the occasional moment of observational humor. Porumboiu deftly edits between time and space, cutting back and forth between characters and times with ease, the relatively-routine plot allowing for us to follow the dizzying jumps. And it’s done with style. You might be nervous to sit down for a movie whose immediate opening gambit is a title sequence set to Iggy Pop music, but for his sleek-but-fun stylings, Porumboiu knows that he can only decorate his cake once it actually tastes good. And the man loves his cake.
My sugary analogy is to say that this is a movie by a movie-lover, for movie-lovers. There are several overt callbacks to famous films, including a Psycho reference and an extended theater screening of John Ford’s landmark western The Searchers. The film is packed with nods and winks that don’t look to hide themselves, and in fact sort of play into Porumboiu’s sense of humor in dealing with working in a genre so old and bursting with material.
But in playing to its genre, The Whistlers also dives into a strong character study of a man caught between not one, not two, but three women vying for control over him; a noirish staple to send Freud swimming with material. Between Gilda and his criminal intentions, his innocent mother (Julieta Szonyi), and his dominant police chief boss (Rodica Lazar), life can feel a little screwy for ‘ol Cristi. What’s nice is that unlike some of the vamps of past films, themselves of different eras with different social norms, shall we say, The Whistlers doesn’t demonize or exploit its women. They’re smart, they’re out for what they want, and they’re real people, rather than cutouts.
And true to its title, The Whistlers uses its gimmick without really making it a focal point. The whistling language the crooks look to employ is a means to an end, and doesn’t feel ham-fisted into the narrative; we’re not given excess scenes to laugh at Cristi practicing, for example, or any overwrought musings on its silliness. It’s a tool, these people are professionals, move on. But in the subtext of Porumboiu’s film, the whistling becomes a sort of observational study, though a superficial one perhaps, on the efforts we make to communicate with each other. How something so obtuse might cut through the truth, whereas everything else is a game of double-crossing and cops and robbers.
By time The Whistlers’ 97 minutes were up, I was sort of in a state of perfect contention. It’s not a film that shoots for epic deconstruction of a genre, and that’s just fine. What it does do is keep the audience engaged with terrific editing and smartly-crafted scenes; just flat-out good filmmaking. And if that’s not enough to sell a ticket, you can go *whistle* yourself!