Where Roma gave us poetry, Workforce gives us menace. That is not to suggest writer/director David Zonana’s new Mexico-set story is all spite and no charm, but this film and the team behind it are conspicuously more concerned with depicting the ugliness of working-class life rather than searching for lyricism within the miseries of poverty. No, Workforce leans into the unbridled calamity of it all, imbuing its first half with a grounded style reminiscent of classic neo-realist, anti-establishment yarns. Around the halfway mark, however, the film declares itself finished with this storyline, and Zonana suddenly moves the proceedings into a disarmingly new area, making for a satisfyingly unpredictable slow-burn fable.
Workforce begins as it means to go on. In striking, deep-focus clarity, an unbroken shot captures workers diligently performing various tasks around an expensive-looking house they are in the process of constructing. The diegetic sounds of nature and the men’s tools are all that we hear, and just as the normality of it all becomes slightly tedious, a man falls from height with an alarming thud. The men run over in a panic to check on him, and the worst is confirmed in the next shot, depicting his funeral. The brother of the deceased, Francisco, played with commendable depth by Luis Alberti, attempts to seek some form of justice for his kin, whose widow is callously denied any form of compensation due to some bogus loopholes in the men’s contracts. Like happenings in many a grounded, intimate social drama of this era, now is when long, upsetting sequences in administrative buildings ensue, where innocent protagonists have their basic human needs ignored or crushed by bureaucratic negligence.
But Workforce has a wild card; after a few tragic developments, the plot concerning Francisco’s heroic journey towards some well-deserved justice for his family suddenly just…ends. And in its place, Zonana aims Francisco in a very different, more complicated direction. Both character and writer give up on trying to tease out a response or a resolution from uncaring authority figures, and instead, Francisco hatches plans to better his station in life on his own terms. These plans involve some criminal decisions, and a scheme to unite his fellow workers in a faux-utopian shared living space, a dream which is slowly and deliberately set up and stripped down by Zonana’s careful scene construction and Alberti’s nuanced combination of righteousness, determination, and arrogance in his performance. What follows is both a damning character study and a sardonic but witty criticism of capitalist opportunism, of which not only the wealthiest are guilty. Its implications are up to interpretation, and its condemnations are sure to spark disagreement, but one of the film’s most refreshing elements is its resistance to wrapping up all its loose ends straightforwardly.
Zonana’s writing and the camerawork by his cinematographer, Carolina Costa, are perfectly suited to each other. Zonana’s plot unfolds between patient, quiet interludes of life going on as usual, and like the opening, most scenes end with a striking narrative development revealed suddenly and bluntly. Costa’s camera almost never moves; most scenes are comprised of a single, static shot, elegantly placed so that it captures various planes of action. In various scenes involving meetings between Francisco, his fellow workers, and their families, for example, the foreground, middle, and background are full of faces and bodies, and Costa and Zonana make full use of each shot construction to capture every reaction, and convey the effect of what is being said on the whole.
I deliberately remain vague as to what Zonana has Francisco do to shift the plot so significantly, as the humanity of his plans and the effect they have on his own morals and those of the people around him are cleverly investigated by the film’s use of unpredictability and ambiguity. The film’s surprises also, it must be said, make up for a great deal of its quality, and I suspect the film would be rather less engaging upon a repeat viewing, as the intrigue mainly comes from not knowing where the fable is going to turn next.
Ultimately, though the ending provides a striking and quite satisfying payoff for the slow-burn plot, the story taken as a whole comes off more glib than insightful, more finger-wagging than convincing. I thought the same of Michel Franco’s Chronic (Franco is one of the producers of Workforce; Zonana one of the producers of Chronic), which also has some devastatingly grim developments, but concludes with an undeserved and lazy shrug of an ending. Workforce features a more justified conclusion, for certain, but it similarly implies that this team prefers their endings to feel unfinished and unpoetic, in a that’s-just-how-life-is-sometimes manner. All in all, Workforce has enough merits to deserve a recommendation, but not quite enough to establish it as a breakout classic just yet. Zonana’s script is witty and his insights clearly on the right track towards exposing something essential about societal structures, but some more effort is required to truly make any of these statements stick. It is Ms. Costa, however, whose work strikes one as that of an up-and-coming talent to watch. See it for her and Zonana’s shot construction, and you will not be disappointed.