4×4 (2021)

I love a good high-concept gimmick. Any premise that feels like it was pitched as scribbles on a bar napkin calls out to me like an irresistible Siren song – whether it’s “haunted Zoom call“, “killer cocktail dress“, or “cannibal mermaid musical“. As a result, the bar-napkin premise for the new Argentine cheapie 4×4 was too good to pass up. 4×4 is a single-location, confined-space thriller about a petty thief who gets trapped in a high-tech “bait car”, then tormented for days by his victim-turned-captor. Basically, “bait car torture porn.” It mostly delivers on that gimmick for its first hour too (even if the concept feels a decade stale). We are trapped in the bait-car torture chamber with our unlucky-thief protagonist for a miserable, laughable stretch of high-concept cruelty, making for some highly entertaining modern exploitation trash. Then, 4×4 commits a major sin; it abandons its gimmick for a stubbornly traditional, moralistic conclusion outside the car-prison, ruining its trashy appeal for a last-minute attempt at respectability. Bummer.

After an opening-credits montage of security cameras, locked gates, and barbed-wire fences spotted on the streets of Buenos Aires, we jump right into the central action of the story. A thief in soccer hooligan drag breaks into a parked SUV and removes the car’s radio, then pisses on the backseat as a childish prank. He immediately regrets that prank, though, as he ends up spending the next few days of his life soaking in his own piss. The car doors are locked; the windows are polarized & bulletproofed; he’s an isolated prisoner, made to spend endless days in solitary confinement as his rich-asshole captor taunts him over the would-be stolen radio. Most of the torture is the confinement itself; outside of the car’s AC system being weaponized for bursts of extreme cold & extreme heat, the thief is mostly just left to stew in his own repugnant juices & stench. His only water source is the condensation he licks off the car windows in the morning hours. His only escapes are the delirious dreams he has while starved & dehydrated. His only company is the villainous voice on the radio that holds him captive . . . until that villain ruins the movie by insisting on facing his victim in person, outside of the car.

The ideal version of 4×4 would stick to the confines of its commanding gimmick. It starts off on the right foot with the weaponized AC unit & bullets ricocheting off the unbreakable windows, but the booby traps should have exponentially escalated from there. Transforming an ordinary SUV into a mechanized torture chamber leaves plenty of room for over-the-top gimmickry. Unfortunately, the movie shies away from its true destiny as a inane high-concept thriller to instead stage a spirited communal debate about the morality of vigilante justice. Instead of sawblade steering wheels, trash-compactor seating, or tentacled seatbelts, we get a sober, both-sidesing conversation about street crime & wealth-disparity that asks empty rhetorical questions like “What is happening to us as a society?” What a letdown. No one’s going to seek this movie out for its philosophical insights on the morality of petty theft or vigilante justice. Even if that were the case, it ultimately doesn’t have much to say on the topic. The audience is only on the hook for the bar-napkin promise of killer-SUV hijinks, and the movie’s outright cruel to drive away without satisfying that vehicular bloodlust.

-Brandon Ledet