For his debut feature, director Josef Wladyka picked a subject matter that not many first time indie filmmakers would tackle—and for that matter, not many veteran ones would choose to either. But with “Manos Sucias” (“Dirty Hands”), Wladyka and his co-writer Allan Blanco (who also served as cinematographer) not only delve into the seedy and often times soul-crushing world of the Colombian drug trade, they do it with a unique perspective that neither glamorizes this world nor comes off as preachy. Just heart- achingly honest.
This is a tale that’s told from the ground up, and unlike most movies about the drug trade, that’s where it stays. That’s the unique part. The two protagonists—half-brothers who have turned to running drugs for their own reasons—seem to inhabit the same world and have the same physical goal. They need to tow a cocaine filled torpedo up the coast of Colombia to make a drop. Simple enough. But they’re approaching the job from vastly different worldviews and backgrounds. Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) is young, naïve, and has an infant son to provide for. Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) has a more sinister edge and has no illusions about the job or the people that they have to deal with.
Wladyka has traveled extensively through this region, so as a director he has imbued “Dirty Hands” with an honest representation. Racism between light skinned and dark skinned Colombians is an important underpinning here, as it even drives the circumstances of who ends up doing the dirty work. And for American viewers who couldn’t even name a city in Colombia besides, say, Bogota, there’s a crash course in geography.
There’s also an interesting mix of new technology and pop culture set against the near third world backdrop which gives the film a dual narrative. Hip hop is everywhere, but with a native flair. The drug smugglers use GPS, but their boat looks like it should barely float, let alone be the vessel responsible for towing such a valuable payload. And that’s not even bringing up the fact of where we know the drugs will ultimately wind up versus the way many Colombians are living.
Once the journey is underway, the relationship between Delio and Jacobo becomes more delineated. Delio doesn’t hide his youth—it’s in his boasts, his thoughts, and even the dreams he has. And it’s not as if he hasn’t seen violence or poverty. It just seems that it hasn’t completely drained him of optimism. Jacobo has no such airs. He is matter of fact about almost everything, and when it comes to a few violent confrontations, he not only does it because he has to, he may even enjoy it (at one point, he even screams, “I told you I was the devil!” and you begin to believe it).
The violence of “Dirty Hands” is not of the over the top variety. It’s sticky, messy, and permanent. As the pair makes their way to their destination, they run into a few situations—seemingly innocuous at first—that could ruin their entire plan. There’s a nice scene (well, it starts out as a nice scene) when a group of kids, who could have included Delio and Jacobo in their youth, frolic on the beach; only they discover what they shouldn’t, and then things turn decidedly dark. Even Delio is forced to choose between the own success of their mission and his aversion to violence. Both Abvincula and Martinez are well cast in their roles and handle their characters’ individual journeys (as well as the relationship to each other) with realism.
There are definitely spots in “Dirty Hands” that would have benefited from a more polished script or more time in the edit room. The beginning, while well-meaning at trying to establish the setting, comes off as a bit unnecessary. There’s no smooth introduction to the story as the viewer has to try to sort out who is who and what exactly they are seeing. Even the relationship of Delio and Jacobo isn’t that clear until they are well into their drug run.
Once the movie hits the water, however, it becomes an interesting pastiche of ‘the chase.’ The chase for money, the chase for survival, and the physical chase to make sure the drugs get to where they’re supposed to go. And speaking of chases, “Dirty Hands” features one of the most unique chase scenes in recent memory. When Delio and Jacobo have to go ashore in an attempt to recover the torpedo once it has been stolen, they end up using a makeshift taxi service which uses a motorcycle (with an attached platform) that traverses the train tracks to get from point A to point B.
Ultimately, “Dirty Hands” is an intriguing and most watchable film. The subject matter isn’t new, but the approach is. The way the drug trade affects those who lack the power to change their circumstances is dealt with in an honest way; this is ground level filmmaking at its finest. Wladyka has crafted a movie that lets his actors shine, uses the locations to help tell a story, and sees the end goal as more than just delivering a torpedo full of drugs. And that’s the mark of a good movie.