Pablo Escobar is one of the most notorious drug dealers in history. He rose to power pretty quickly, even having a temporary stint in Colombian politics, giving the poor of Colombia someone to believe in for awhile, even if their belief in him was misplaced. Because we have to remember that Escobar was also an extremely powerful and violent man, something actor-turned-director Andrea Di Stefano (Life of Pi, Eat Pray Love) takes advantage of in his first feature film thriller Escobar: Paradise Lost.
Nick (Josh Hutcherson) and his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) are Canadian surfers who think they’ve found a beautiful piece of paradise on the coast of Colombia. They’re living the good life, living on the beach, and keeping to themselves. That is, until Nick meets a local girl named Maria (Claudia Traisac) and they are quick to fall in love. Of course, after they’ve been dating for awhile, Maria introduces Nick to her family, who welcome him with open arms. And her uncle Pablo (Benicio del Toro) is quick to take him in and protect anyone who messes with him for the sake of his niece Maria.
Pablo Escobar is painted as the epitome of a family man. He’s the head honcho, the big kahuna, and all adhere to him. Nick doesn’t assume anything at first because he’s being so well taken care of, but then he isn’t that naive to think that nothing’s going on, especially after Pablo “takes care” of some local guys who keep bothering Nick and his brother. And Maria innocently explains that her uncle makes all his money from selling cocaine. After a few years, and the night before Pablo is to turn himself over to the authorities, he asks Nick and several other family members to go on a mission for him. They’re to take the cocaine and load them into different caves before blowing up the entrance and killing their accomplices, but things don’t go exactly as planned, do they?
Andrea Di Stefano gets immediately to the heart of the film. No, it’s not a romance, that part of the story appearing very minimally in the film, but there’s plenty of suspense, action, and thrills which is mainly what Stefano was looking to achieve, it seems. The second half of the film, where all the action and edge-of-your-seat suspense happens is really good. Benicio del Toro’s Escobar is kind, but menacing, a father-figure, but violent. In the end, he only looks out for himself, regardless of who you are to him, which is really what makes him good at what he does and even more frightening.
The action is good, nothing too over-the-top, Di Stefano choosing to focus more on the thriller part of the story. Josh Hutcherson plays a naive nice guy really well, but is drawn to the edge of his rope when he’s forced to do things he never imagined he’d do. The scenes Hutcherson shares with del Toro are intense and gratifying in a away most thrillers aren’t. One could argue that the stakes are heightened because we know of Escobar and what he’s done and is capable of, which changes the way we as an audience view the film, but I’m pretty sure that is what Di Stefano is banking on.
The first half of the film feels a bit rushed. We don’t get a lot of the romance between Maria and Nick, which is a shame because it would have been more interesting to see she and Nick fall in love and the struggles he might have felt trying to blend in with her family just from a cultural aspect. The story never focuses heavily on them, but their relationship is still present and strong throughout the film, enough that you really feel bad for them when things start to get bad.
The supporting characters aren’t heavily focused on either, which would have raised the stakes a little more, but the story still manages to power through in a way where most would have faltered and died. Del Toro’s presence is a threatening force the entire time, even though he doesn’t appear in the film as often as he should. The film shows us both sides of the lifestyle in which Escobar surrounded himself. There are the happy, family-oriented moments. The “I’ve got your back” moments, the helpful countryman, and the protective nature that Escobar shows even fools the audience into thinking everything will be fine, but Di Stefano makes sure to lure us into a false sense of safety, just like Hutcherson feels, and it’s very effective.
Escobar: Paradise Lost is a thrilling ride filled with suspense, emotional beats, good, if a little underdeveloped characters, and an overall well-told story for a first-time feature film director. Del Toro is brilliant as Escobar and Hutcherson holds up well in a role that could have easily been forgettable, while Claudia Traisac and Brady Corbet offer good supporting roles. The film isn’t perfect, but it does offer a great, thrilling, and entertaining ride that is exciting, sad, and hits fantastic suspenseful beats.