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‘There Are No Saints’ (review)

There Are No Saints is a revenge movie. And that’s the most one can say for it.

Starring José María Yazpik as ex-con hitman Neto Niente, aka the Jesuit, and helmed by Alfonso Pineda Ulloa (his first English language feature), the film follows the gang-affiliated killer as he is released from prison after a repentant cop’s deathbed confession undoes his case.

There Are No Saints was notably penned by Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame – but more on that in a moment.

Though we are never fully enlightened to the particulars of Niente’s crime for which he was convicted (something to do with a dead cop), the opening is haphazardly intercut with moments from a presumably separate incident in which our hero brutally beats and tortures a woman at her kitchen table.

Not to fret: the repercussions of this will incoherently return before the curtain has closed.

Following his release from prison, Niente is met by his lawyer in a delightful turn by the always welcome Tim Roth, who urges him to skip town posthaste since the Texas police will be after him, innocent or not.

But of course, there’s something keeping him: his estranged wife (Paz Vega) and their young son (who apparently spends each waking moment depicting his father as Christ with red crayons).

When Niente attempts to rekindle things with his wife, her new real estate mogul/gun runner boyfriend (Neal McDonough) doesn’t take kindly to the idea, murdering her and kidnapping their son across the Mexican border in retaliation. In the aftermath Niente teams up with an enterprising local stripper, played by an endearing Shannyn Sossamon, to embark on a bloody road trip across the southwest that will ultimately lead to an ex-ATF pedophilic cartel boss’s ancient fortress in the jungles of Mexico.

And reading that back, it almost sounds cool.

The issue is that There Are No Saints can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be.

It’s not straight-faced enough to be serious (or seriously ridiculous, in the tradition of more classic exploitation films), and yet also lacks the self-awareness of more recent fare like John Wick that would allow for any fun. There Are No Saints shines in some well-choreographed shootouts and its salutary supporting cast, which features the aforementioned Sossamon and Roth, as well as Tommy Flanagan, and the underused Ron Perlman as the finale’s cartel boss. Yet all of them invite more pathos than Yazpik’s leaden, furrow-browed Niente as he makes his stolid way from one gratuitous torture scene to the next.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself is its bizarre production history.

Schrader, who recently produced a late-career highlight in First Reformed (2017), these days typically directs his own scripts. Some cursory digging finds that he wrote There Are No Saints, then titled The Jesuit, in 2009, and was set to direct with Oscar Isaac (who starred in Schrader’s 2021 film The Card Counter) in the then-titular role. Following financial woes, Schrader moved on to begin production on The Canyons with Bret Easton Ellis, and No Saints’ producer regained the rights and gave the film to Ulloa.

Adding to the confusion, No Saints’ IMDB page credits Succesion’s Brian Cox, who does not appear in the film. Apparently Cox was initially cast in Ron Perlman’s role, but had his scenes reshot for unknown reasons.

Even given those delays, There Are No Saints wrapped in 2013, and why it hasn’t surfaced until now, nearly a decade after the fact, is another mystery. Schrader, who purportedly saw an unfinished cut in 2014, wrote in IndieWire amidst a litany of backhanded compliments: “I LOVED IT! It’s better than it would have been if I’d directed it.” If only I could muster his enthusiasm.

There Are No Saints is a flawed and uneven shoot-em-up, but nevertheless a necessity for the Schrader completist. If nothing else, one has to wonder what could have been.

 

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jose Martinez Jr., Santiago Garcia Galvan, Alex Garcia 
Screenplay by Paul Schrader
Directed by Alfonso Pineda Ulloa 
Starring José María Yazpik, Shannyn Sossamon, Paz Vega,
Neal McDonough, Keidrich Sellati, Tommy Flanagan
with Ron Perlman and Tim Roth.

 

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