I admire the Mexican indie horror Tigers Are Not Afraid for laying all its cards on the table before it even displays its title. Onscreen text explains that drug cartel violence has effectively left many Mexican cities “ghost towns,” with countless orphaned children left behind by the abducted & the murdered. Then, a classroom of children are assigned to write their own fairy tales as a creative writing exercise, just before that classroom itself is disrupted by gang violence & gunfire. In these opening moments we’re introduced to nearly everything the film has on its mind as a post-del Toro dark fairy tale about young kids navigating the seemingly empty streets cleared out by oppressive drug cartels. The “ghost town” descriptor from the opening text is made literal as the vengeful spirits of the cartels’ victims haunt the orphaned children & their deteriorating urban environments to the point where drug wars feel like an ancient, eternal Evil with no perceptible beginning or end. Tigers Are Not Afraid announces this grim scenario upfront in clear terms, but that does little to demystify the moment-to-moment discoveries of its horrific details. Hearing about it & dwelling in its consequences are two entirely different experiences.
Children not only carelessly play near dead bodies in the streets, but are literally followed home by the resulting blood, which moves with intent & apparent sentience. Recalling the fend-for-yourselves childhood narratives of George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, and Nobody Knows, the parentless social structures established here sketch out a world where the only adults around are teachers & murderous drug dealers. Then the teachers disappear. The remaining kids are left alone in their own fight for survival against the villainous Huascas gang. Haunted by the ghosts of the dead (sometimes even the ghosts of their own families) as they call out for revenge, the kids find a balance between remaining under the killer cartel’s radar and re-establishing a semblance of justice in the world by striking back. Tales of cannibalism, Satanic rituals, magic wishes, and shapeshifting tigers complicate their understanding of the conflict, but their main concern is daily survival. An unorthodox domesticity emerges among the children in the rubble as they nomadically shift from one squat to the next, just outside the cartel’s reach. The ghosts of the dead call out for a climactic showdown between the warring factions, which is exceedingly dangerous, seeing how the children are outnumbered & outgunned.
While Tigers Are Not Afraid declares its entire dark fairy tale ghost story about drug cartels conceit upfront, it still leaves plenty of room to surprise in its details. Images of skateboards, rooftop dance parties, animated graffiti, pianos in flames, and ghosts seemingly made entirely of darkness establish an otherworldly urban aesthetic entirely unique to the picture. The film is also admirably committed to its own sense of brutality, threatening to destroy young children by bullet or by ghost without blinking an eye. Anyone especially in love with similar past works like The Devil’s Backbone or The City of Lost Children should find a lot worthwhile here, though there’s a specificity to the Mexican drug cartel context that saves the film from feeling strictly like an echo of former glories. The movie reveals few surprises in the execution of its initial premise except maybe the depths of its brutality, its willingness to incorporate conventional ghost movie scares into its fairy tale tone, and its commentary on how political corruption makes its grim world possible. I suppose its obedience to ghost story & dark fairy tale tropes elsewhere is what makes it a genre picture to begin with, but it finds plenty opportunity in its details to establish its own magical, nightmarish space.