“Cops are like actors – you have to put on an act so people respect you.” The speaker is one of the police officers, or possibly actors playing police officers, in this startlingly clever and yet heartfelt docudrama about the contractual nature of power and authority from Mexican film-maker Alonso Ruizpalacios, who in just five years has established himself as one of the most potent talents in world cinema, with his new wave-style debut Güeros in 2014 and his true-crime heist drama Museum in 2018.
Now he gives us what looks at first glance like a conventionally gripping cop drama in chapter-length sections, about a couple of young officers, Teresa (Mónica Del Carmen) and Montoya (Raúl Briones), on the tough streets of Mexico City; they are partners, fall in love, get nicknamed “the love patrol” and then fall foul of the corruption higher up the food chain. Ruizpalacios gives his movie catchy music and bold graphics over the opening credits, making it look like an addictive TV cop show: but he also experimentally makes his characters talk direct to camera in a mockumentary manner and also lip-sync mid-scene to their own voiceover commentary on what’s happening in verbatim cinema style.
And halfway through … the illusion breaks, the fourth wall falls, and this is now a documentary about the actors themselves, Briones and Del Carmen, who are doing video diaries about how they had to immerse themselves in the real lives of cops to prepare for the parts. Or is all this scripted fakery as well? As one of the cops says: the job is about acting, confidently playing the part of a cop to enforce your authority on the street. And where have cops and the public learned how a cop behaves? Why, from cop movies of course!
Ruizpalacios restores the fictional sheen and dramatic certainty to his story for his final chapter in Montoya and Teresa’s lives, and their hurt and disillusionment is engrossing. There is a deeply strange scene in which Ruizpalacios films in extreme slo-mo Teresa having to jump from a high diving board into a swimming pool, theoretically to accustom herself to dangerous situations but really, she suspects, as part of a bullying ritual. She floats eerily downwards like a tiny blood sacrifice. It’s a movie bristling with ideas and ingenuity.
• A Cop Movie is released on 29 October in cinemas, and on 5 November on Netflix.