★★☆☆☆

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s seventh feature (and second out this month in the UK, the other being documentary Infinite Football), is a stylish and fitfully engaging crime thriller with a great concept, let down by incoherent plotting and impenetrable characterisation.

Cristi (Vlad Ivanov), a middle-aged cop working for the Bucharest police force, is working deep undercover in the mafia, though it’s never quite clear in what direction his operation is travelling. Certainly, his police bosses don’t trust him, rigging his apartment with CCTV that he’s perfectly aware of but knows he can’t touch. Cristi is deployed to the Canary island of La Gomera to flush out the activities of a criminal ring by Paco (Agusti Villaronga), who are using a secret whistling language to communicate in order to break out Zsolt (Sabin Tambreau) from prison, the only member of the gang who knows where a stash of cash is hidden.

Cinematographer Tudor Mirceau’s use of colour  – a vibrant palette of blues, yellows and browns, is distinctive without being garish, grounded without being muted, pulling off an impressive balancing act between visual style and storytelling. Sadly, it goes a good deal further in establishing the film’s shifting moral tone than its confusing – and often confused – editing and two-dimensional characters. Porumboiu attempts to inject some moral murk by having Cristi’s boss Magda (Rodica Lazar) and another colleague open to bribes and planting evidence, but his screenplay meets this apparent moral complication with little more than an arch shrug, as if to say “see, everyone’s corrupt really”.

Ivanov’s Cristi gives good weary cop, his husky frame hunching its way through the The Whistlers’ beautiful settings like he’s just walked in from some bleak Scandi-noir. There’s real potential here to use this juxtaposition between performance and setting to examine the characters’ moral contradictions, yet it is buried under increasing mounds of flashbacks, hasty exposition and arbitrary chapter headings.

Speaking of wandering in from other movies, while love interest Gilda (Catrinel Marlon) takes her name from another (superior) film about crime and duplicity, her character is straight from the world of James Bond. Marlon’s minimalist performance is engaging and a moment of casual sexual assault from her boss hints at undisclosed interior pain, but it’s cheapened by an entirely gratuitous and tacky sex scene early on.

There’s a lot to like about The Whistlers: by their nature crime thrillers of its ilk are rarely less than fun and both Marlon and Ivanov are consistently engaging, while Mirceau’s visuals never fail to draw the eye. Sadly, it’s let down by a straightforward, shallow script made, by an over-enthusiastic session spent in the editing suite, to appear more complex than it is.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm

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