First days on the job are just the worst.
Take Martin. This longtime Spanish cop is moving to a new precinct, dealing with new procedures and learning about new partners. And his first assignment? It’s a doozy.
Oh, it shouldn’t be all that difficult: He and his new partner, Montesinos, must transport a half-dozen felons to a new prison, which sounds simple enough. Only one of the guys—a Romanian sex trafficker—seems particularly dangerous. Other than that, their passengers are pretty small fry: a petty crook here, a drug user there, an elderly politician who embezzled some money over in the corner. It should be a quiet trip.
But it’s a night trip, which seems unusual to Martin. The weather’s going to dip well below freezing. And there could be snow on the road. Montesinos tells him that he’ll likely freeze off, um, critical pieces of his anatomy before the trip’s done.
But another complication lurks in wait—the most dangerous one of all. A man wants to get his hands on one of the passengers in the worst way. He’ll kill, in fact, to do it. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again before the night’s through; several times, if he must. This prisoner—alive—is worth a few dead bodies, including those wearing a badge.
First days on the job are hard, for sure. But most people, at least, survive to see their second.
Most of the characters we meet here are hardened criminals. And the cops we meet sometimes have their own issues. But all the folks wearing a badge want to deliver the prisoners, so that’s a good thing. And Martin—well, he seems like a bit of an idealist when it comes to his job. And that’s also a good thing.
When Montesinos abuses his authority before the trip begins, Martin calls him on it—telling him to back away from a prisoner before the two come to blows. And when Montesinos tells him to relax, Martin says, “Rules aren’t meant to be relaxed, Montesinos.”
We all know that laws can be imperfect mechanisms in establishing justice, and Martin’s idealism is challenged before the movie’s end. But he starts at the place we all—and where, especially, a police officer—should start: trusting in the rules and codes placed before us, while understanding that no human law is perfect.
While many of the other characters we meet are indeed criminals, some show a better character than we might’ve suspected. Some act sacrificially, and one saves the life of an enemy before the story concludes.
A couple of the prisoners have tattoos of crucifixes.
Before the ride begins, all of the prisoners are strip searched. We see several men in their underwear. They’re also forced to drop their underwear briefly, and we see one expose himself to the camera. (Another is forced to pull down his drawers, squat and cough; we see a bit of his genitals as he does so.) A prisoner jokes that Montesinos must like looking at men’s privates. (Men are also shown without shirts on in a police shower.)
One of the prisoners is something of a crime lord and human trafficker, and Montesinos tells Martin that more than “200 girls” were working for him when he was finally captured.
Though we’ll (unfortunately) go into greater length on this point in violent content, worth mentioning here: Rape is discussed in sometimes graphic detail. One victim was allegedly just 13.
The movie opens with a hooded assailant beating and torturing a young man. We see the guy punched and chocked, dragged through the mud (face first) by a chain, thwacked in the face with a shovel and then buried alive.
It gets worse.
Someone burns to death. Another drowns. A third is bludgeoned fatally with a fire extinguisher. People are shot and killed or die via automobile crash. A man dies after a big, metallic point gets rammed into the top of his skull.
Those who don’t die still suffer some pretty horrific injuries. A couple of men get shot in the legs (which makes running from the various dangers they face difficult). A man is stabbed in the hand with a piece of glass, creating an incredibly grotesque wound. Another man has his hand shot clean off, and we see it (and the resulting howling anguish). Someone’s nearly deafened by a gunshot.
Several faces are streaked with blood. Someone threatens to cut someone open. Several people nearly drown or freeze to death or both. Characters hit, kick, bite, get kneed in the groin and perform (and suffer) choke holds. Someone seems to suffer a broken nose. A vehicle plunges into icy, lethal water. Guns are pointed. Many, many threats are made. A prisoner brags that he’s got nine years to go in his sentence because he put his sister’s rapist in a coma.
[Spoiler Warning] The movie’s mysterious killer is a father bent on revenge. His daughter was repeatedly raped, tortured and killed, and he’s desperate to learn the location of the body from a man whom he thinks was one of the responsible parties. We hear a graphic description of what happened to the teen girl before she died, which we’ll simply say is horrific.
We hear nearly 180 f-words (at least), sometimes paired with the word “mother,” sometimes used with Christ’s name. The s-word is used about 20 times, and we hear pretty much every other profanity in the ledgers at least once as well. They include “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p-ss,” “pr–k” and “d–k.”
God’s name is misused at least four times, including three of those with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused at least another five times.
One of the prisoners is a drug addict, and he admits that he began his career in crime to feed that habit. Another prisoner says that once he gets out, he plans to start a bar in the Caribbean. A couple of characters smoke cigarettes.
A prisoner smuggles something in his rear end. To get access to the on-board bathroom to retrieve it, he lets loose some ill-smelling gas and complains of feeling sick. Once in the bathroom, we see the prisoner presumably fish around in his backside, then see the package he retrieves.
Naturally, lots of the characters here have broken a variety of laws, and most admit to their past misdeeds. Montesinos bends some of his own legal leanings, causing some discomfort among his charges that, if his supervisor had seen, would’ve been forced to write up. (His bending of the rules looks, in the end, pretty mild compared to what we later see.)
The Spanish-made Below Zero is a tense, bloody and wildly profane thriller that will undoubtedly keep many viewers on the edge of their seats. Some, though, might be so positioned in order to make a quick run toward the bathroom or to mute the sound.
The movie slots itself somewhere between a gory mystery story and a revenge thriller—the sort of movie that encourages its viewers to cheer when the bad guy gets his and forget the body count that leads up to it. We won’t belabor the flawed morality tale ostensibly in play here: The film’s just not thoughtful enough to spend the time.
Let’s instead draw your attention to the blood and language the film embraces. Oh, what? You think we’ve already covered that? Well, let’s just say we could go on for another 20 or 30 paragraphs covering that exact same ground, and we’d still not wallow in the gore and sadism and obscene language as much as the movie itself did.
Below Zero could’ve carried the same level of narrative power without most of that unfortunate content, of course. The story, and its underlying tension, are not predicated on it. But as constructed, Below Zero, for families, hits way below the belt.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.