Neon is the crown studio for independent dramas with a penchant for unrelenting chaos. Their newest offering, Michel Franco’s New Order, fits the bill as an exercise in terror endurance. Somehow, the Mexican dystopic thriller convinces audiences that more is at stake for mankind than a Roland Emmerich disaster film.
Franco’s latest — which received the grand jury prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival — has already been met with controversy in North America. Detractors believe Franco’s privileged position as a lighter-skinned Mexican filmmaker with a higher socioeconomic status blinds him to the struggles of the underprivileged lives he depicts. His imbalanced character exploration justifies this argument: he concentrates more on providing dimension to the light-skinned elite than the darker-skinned, working-class characters. Intentional or not, New Order winds up becoming a fascinating look at how guilt can overtake a passion project, which incidentally works in its favor.
The auteur’s narrative execution comes off like a flimsy “both sides” take, but its primary concern is with the omnipotent evil of deeply embedded political systems that quickly recover — and often profit — from civil unrest and division. The tragedy of New Order is that, while there are casualties in both camps, the worst scum ends up surviving. Their luck in living to wreak havoc another day means the truly innocent continue to be wrongfully punished. Meanwhile, the few silver-spooners with a savior complex wind up becoming victims of “too little, too late” karma.
Franco’s violent tale begins with bizarre hints at impending doom. Green pops up everywhere in dye form: running water, filled balloons, spray paint, you name it. The color usage is a red herring, making us believe something science-fiction-like is about to occur, but in reality, the presumed invasion from afar originates deep within. What better way to disrupt the peaceful order of unbothered affluence than by crashing a wedding?
Before the beautiful bride and groom — Marianne (Naian González Norvind) and Alan (Dario Yazbek Bernal) — receive their matrimonial sendoff, a former employee named Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) arrives unexpectedly at the bride’s family residence, which also serves as the ceremony venue. Marianne’s mother, Rebeca (Lisa Owen), greets the long-serving staff member, now retired, who begs for money to borrow for his wife’s imminent surgery. Given both his years of dedication and the family’s wealth, there is no question that Rolando deserves this immediate loan. It clearly wounds his pride to even ask, but the situation is dire enough to warrant a desperate plea for financial aid, especially one his old employers can easily afford.
Marianne promises to do all she can but is overruled by her callous brother, Daniel (Diego Boneta). The popular Mexican actor and singer plays a selfish swine of a man who seems repulsed by the mere presence of someone from outside his aristocratic bubble. Daniel is fully aware of his mistreatment of service personnel over the years, which is why he’s on the hyper-defense once the working-class uprising eventually comes to fruition. In a matter of minutes, the rich no longer have the upper hand — a widespread coup is underway, aided by local military and house staff on the inside.
Watching rioters scale the fountain wall of this luxury property is both an alarming and vital viewing experience. Homes are meant to be personal sanctuaries, but when a huge chunk of the population is denied this basic right, then real estate ownership simply becomes a gluttonous status symbol. Flaunting wealth, in this case, has the adverse effect of announcing to anarchists that these homeowners are worth stealing from (and not losing a wink of sleep in the process).
The home invasion aftermath is even more terrifying. Marianne has been kidnapped and held for ransom after ditching her own wedding to pay respects to Rolando’s ailing wife. Furthermore, dead bodies flood the town square, with armed forces patrolling the streets of Mexico City, ready to gun down anyone who does not abide by the curfew. No one, however, suffers more than the unsung heroes of this violent conflict: Marta and Cristian (Mónica Del Carmen and Fernando Cuautle, respectively), a mother and son domestic worker duo, who do all they can to help their boss Marianne, yet are placed under an unfair cloud of suspicion by Daniel and his equally reprehensible relatives. The sensational acting pair masterfully exude exterior calm while their eyes betray internal panic.
Ultimately, Marianne’s white savior narrative goes nowhere since New Order is not about validating the heroism of someone with a lighter complexion — a far cry from most Hollywood dramas that deal with social revolutions. Nor does the script make sweeping generalizations about its working-class insurrectionists, even though some graphic imagery could be misconstrued as painting rebels as inherently barbaric.
When coupled with the knowledge that the country’s political leaders, its military, and the top one-percent are taking advantage of a highly volatile state of class strife in Mexico, one begins to understand New Order’s true purpose: to show that even when armed and in temporary power, the laboring class is never in control. A mad spree to climb a few rungs up the financial ladder via theft and robbery, without any permanent systemic change, is ironically uneventful for such a well-orchestrated takeover. A global call to action is essential if anything is going to change Mexico’s imbalance of power and huge wealth disparity.
For now, I hope that once oxygen returns to viewers’ lungs after sitting through this grueling watch, there will be an even greater outpouring of empathy for undocumented workers and their families in America. Any opportunity to escape tyranny, pervasive racism and classism, and corruption in nearly every facet of society, will always feel worth the risk.
New Order is distributed by NEON and is currently playing in select theaters.