Tony Manero, a Chilean film that depicts a sociopath's disturbing obsession with John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever character of the same name, is clever in the way it transfixes its viewer. In essence, one would expect a film about a serial killer whose sole pleasures in life are derived from hustling to "You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees to be vivid, messy, and a bit campy -- perhaps like Party Monster, another club-era related slasher. Instead, director Pablo Larrain, through use of stylistic selectivity, doles out the more sensational aspects of Tony Manero by adhering to the restrictions of a particular setting -- the slums of 1970's, dictator-controlled Santiago.
In this world -- where American pop culture is imported and subsequently idolized for its escapist qualities -- cold-blooded murder is not so uncommon. Rather, the killing depicted is deliberately unemotional and quick; many times it's just implied as the camera quietly exits a scene. Murder is a means to an end for Raul, a brusque, meticulous 50-year-old, whose passion is to become the Tony Manero of Chile on a lookalike-based TV show. Quiet, sullen, sexually ambiguous, he meanders through his scenes with a seething anger and impatience, only dropping his guard once the lights in the town theater dim and the disco music of Saturday Night Fever flares up.
Oddly, and quite pleasantly, this film hooked me with two conflicting, yet omnipresent sources of anticipation -- the volatile, unpredictable temper of its lead character alongside the buildup to an endearingly campy dance-off or two. I came to adore Raul and fear him, much like the ancillary characters that worship him like a god imbued with falsified power and fame. Genre-bending at its finest (and most original), Tony Manero blends the subtle and outrageous into a fascinating narrative about desperation, idolatry, and disco.