Like many of the filmmakers who’ve made gangster movies, “600 Miles” writer-director Gabriel Ripstein admitted that he’s stolen from Martin Scorsese.
In his case, he said at TheWrap’s Award Screening of his film, Mexico’s entry into the Oscar foreign-language race, it was a scene where baby-faced gangster Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) tries out his tough image in a mirror.
“Obviously, I stole it,” Ripstein told moderator Tim Appelo. “But in ‘Taxi Driver,’ it’s a scene of violence, and here it’s a moment of love, seduction – a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, which is really frowned upon.”
Ferrer’s gay character is more like hypersensitive Plato in “Rebel Without a Cause” than he is like De Niro’s ultraviolent Travis Bickle, and he switches from threatening his mirror image to puckering up for it. He can’t be macho or competent no matter how many guns he buys for the cartels.
“Kristyan has that innocence and naivete to play Arnulfo, a gangster so young and so dumb I can’t help but feel that I want to hug him,” said Ripstein at the Landmark in West Los Angeles on Monday.. “He makes one mistake after another. He’s an embarrassment as a gangster.”
By very dumb luck, Arnulfo winds up kidnapping Hank Harris (Tim Roth), an American ATF agent trying to keep track of assault-gun sales. It’s not a repeat of Roth’s performance in “Reservoir Dogs,” where he forms a tortured brotherly bond with Harvey Keitel‘s character. Instead, he fakes a fatherly bond with the kid gangster, and bails them both out of trouble while planning his escape.
“Hanks is a gray bureaucrat following instructions, trying to manipulate this kid, [doing] anything to survive,” said Ripstein. “Tim was looking to be provoked, and Kristyan provoked him — he didn’t back down, even though he was acting next to Mr. Orange. Tim said, ‘This is a real actor!'”
Also impressive is Harrison Thomas as Arnulfo’s dim young crime partner Carson, who evokes Columbine killer Eric Harris and Edward Norton in “American History X.”
The road trip to the heart of gangland is thriller-like, but also a striking departure from generic drug-war films. “I’d seen many movies that touched on drug trafficking, illegal immigration, but guns were something nobody was talking about,” said the director, who was appalled to learn how interconnected the ATF, DEA, and cartels are.
Stylistically, Ripstein abjured flashy style and rat-a-tat cuts. “I didn’t want it to be cinematographic, I wanted it to look like documentary. I always wanted to do a shootout without cuts.”
Ripstein is third-generation Mexican cinema royalty: His grandfather was a producer, and his father Arturo, a protege of legendary director Luis Bunuel, was a five-time winner at the Guadalajara Film Festival, where Ripstein also won Best Mexican Feature this year.
“My father told my grandfather, ‘Produce a film for me or I’ll kill myself,’ so he made his first movie at 21,” Ripstein said. “I had to wait twice as long.” Gabriel’s first film work was writing for Arturo’s adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel” (1999).
Like its vivid episodes, “600 Miles” resulted from some chance encounters. “My producer Michel Franco had a film at Cannes in 2012 [“After Lucia”] when Tim was head of the Un Certain Regard jury,” said Ripstein. “Tim said, ‘I really liked your film,’ and that conversation led to two films, ‘Chronic,’ which won Best Screenplay at Cannes 2015, produced by me, directed by Michel, and ‘600 Miles,’ which I directed and Michel produced.”
Yet another connection exemplifies the interconnected world of cinema today. “I stole the Dardenne brothers’ DP, Alain Marcoen,” said Ripstein. I looked him up on LinkedIn, and he answered and said yes. LinkedIn is really powerful.”