“Written by Paul Schrader” is one of my favorite sentences in the American cinematic language. The new film, “There Are No Saints” is based on an older Schrader script the filmmaker was slated to direct in 2010 under the title, “The Jesuit”.
After the film’s financing fell through, Schrader moved on. Director Alfonso Pineda Ulloa took the reins and shot the film in 2014.
Unfortunately, the picture never finds an even balance between its homage to 70’s revenge thrillers and Schrader’s skill at creating violent characters on a path of personal grace and redemption.
Neto Niente (José María Yazpik) is a former hitman known as “The Jesuit”. After the policeman who arrested him admits to planting the evidence that solidified his conviction, Niente is released from death row.
Returning to his stomping grounds of South Texas, the former killer contacts his wife, Nadia (Paz Vega), and young son, Julio (Keidrich Sellati). Niente is filled with shame and regret over his violent past and how it caused him to lose his family.
Nadia‘s new man, Vincent (a terrible Neal McDonough, chewing the scenery in an excruciatingly hammy turn) is a nasty and villainous local criminal who doesn’t take to his woman still carrying a sexual torch for her husband.
Vincent kills Nadia and kidnaps young Julio, heading off to Mexico. Niente goes after them, wearing his old ways like a well-tailored suit.
It is here where the film embraces the violent world of revenge with no apologies. What follows is an on again/off again character study where a stoic antihero disposes of baddies with vicious expertise. As everyone from former associates to the local Texas police are after him. The violence Niente wants to leave behind surrounds him, forcing him to be the beast he once was.
Niente’s tale of woe is well-worn, and the audience will experience nothing new here. With a film such as this, it is about how a filmmaker can keep it interesting and entertaining.
Director Ulloa does make this a watchable piece of glammed up exploitation, but it all comes up empty.
Cinematographer Mateo Londono is the winner here, giving the film a dark neon sheen, enhancing the slick grime and nihilism of the criminal underworld in Texas and Mexico. While the film fails to dive deep enough into its exploration of that world, Lonodo assures the film looks better than most in this genre.
Be warned, the violence is brutal and unrelenting, particularly in a finale that goes too far in its attempt to shock. While the point of the film is to excite its audience by watching Niente kill the bad guys, after a while it begins to wallow in its own nastiness.
The supporting cast does okay but the film has nothing much for them to do.
Tim Roth plays Niente’s lawyer and shows up for a couple of moments, spitting out expositional dialogue so fast that his presence becomes moot.
Paz Vega is passable as Niente’s doomed wife, Tommy Flanagan shows up as a gun dealer right out of central casting, and Shannyn Sossamon is completely useless as a stripper who helps the main character in his quest for vengeance.
The film’s biggest crime is its wasting of the great Ron Perlman as the main villain. The actor is reduced to only a few moments of silly “evil” dialogue in the finale. After such a big build up, Perlman deserved a meatier role, and the audience deserved a better payoff.
As Niente, José María Yazpik is certainly stone cold as he moves through the film with an impassive expression and few words, but the actor does nothing notable to earn our respect or sympathy. It is the screenplay that tells us we should root for him.
“There Are No Saints” is a great title and is watchable to be sure, but the film adds up to nothing and the director stumbles to find his way around the dramatic intricacies of Paul Schrader’s heavy themes. Under Ulloa’s direction, the picture becomes redundant. We have been to this movie hundreds of times before.
Perhaps if financing hadn’t fallen through and Schrader would have been allowed direct his own work, the film may have hit harder, and the themes explored dealt with on deeper levels.
As is, this is a one-off exploitation flick that only hints at the dramatic potency hiding within the screenplay.
There Are No Saints
Directed by Alfonso Pineda Ulloa
Written by Paul Schrader
Starring José María Yazpik, Paz Vega, Tim Roth, Neal McDonough, Ron Perlman
R, 105 Minutes, Saban Films/ BN Films/ Itaca Films