Most of the conventional horror is contained in the first 10 minutes. A surgically precise evocation of a lonely gas station at night gives way to reveal someone stalking a driver and passenger. A deliberate crash ensues. A dead woman is taken to a mountain cabin, where the stalker selects a knife from his collection and goes to work. Back home in Granada (this is a Spanish film), the killer fills his refrigerator with the outcome of the murder—the prime cuts stacked in rows. The movie is called Cannibal, after all.
After this terrifying opening, Manuel Martín Cuenca's film remains a minimalist affair, cued to the deadpan central performance by Antonio de la Torre (the bisexual pilot from Almodóvar's I'm So Excited!). He plays Carlos, a meticulous old-school tailor whose skill at cutting suits is matched by his precision at—well, you know. His nosy neighbor (Olimpia Melinte) asks one too many personal questions and abruptly disappears, after possibly finding out too much about Carlos' fridge. We assume Carlos has done his thing. Then her sister Nina (also played by Melinte) arrives to investigate, a process Carlos goes out of his way to aid. Nina is unique enough to sway Carlos away from his fear of women, at least for a while. This cannibal-meets-girl setup is just a little too tidy to take flight as a really original idea, but Cuenca's control as a filmmaker turns Cannibal into a thoroughly engrossing experience anyway. The film is so beautifully lit and framed that it's almost as though Carlos is calling the shots, creating a movie world in which everything fits neatly into place.
Eventually Carlos and Nina will drive up to the mountain cabin, and he will begin eyeing his knives. But Cuenca has an intriguing final act prepared, and he doesn’t push us to settle on a single metaphorical meaning for Carlos' cannibalism—we can make of it what we will. It's definitely not presented as part of the sophistication of an antihero we might come to root for, as the various screen depictions of our old flesh-eating friend Hannibal Lecter have sometimes been guilty of doing. No, this cannibal we do not root for—although eventually we might feel pity. Runs Fri., July 25–Thurs., July 30 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 116 minutes.