With his first feature length film, The Gasoline Thieves, director Edgar Nito wanted to make a statement. Based off a growing problem in Mexico, his debut film does a great job at showcasing just how unforgiving this criminal underworld has become. Drenched in absolute darkness, the film opens to a rhythmic score that instills a sense of dread. Blood is quickly spilled, and the body is left exposed in a field surrounded by flaming chimneys. And this is all before the title card even appears on screen. From there, the film definitely has its ups and downs, but it’s important to remember that what unfolds on screen may not be very far off from actual occurrences. Context into the situation itself seems necessary, and unfortunately, not much comes from the film.
The gasoline thieves, or huachicoleros as they’re called, steal gasoline from the state pipelines. The illegal activity has grown into a billion dollar business that supplies the public, but only with a small amount of the overall product. While 10 percent of the stolen gas is sold to the public by way of street vendors, the rest of the gasoline is sold to big businesses, gas stations, and factories. Matched with local officials being bribed and the thieves being armed to the teeth, it’s a system that has no way of being toppled at the moment. And when one of the thieves explains to the young Lalo what they’re doing is just, he blindly accepts it as fact.
Lalo gets into the business simply to impress his crush, Ana, with a gift. At 14, he’s not concerned with much else, and throws himself into a situation that he should run from. His naiveté is showcased almost immediately by means of being rejected, and then quickly going to see how much a phone costs. So when Lalo is making money while also believing the gas he’s stealing is going back to the public, it becomes a form of “honest work”. Yet the more Lalo makes, the more The Gasoline Thieves drives the point home that turmoil is increasing by the day and gas prices continue to raise. And as Lalo becomes further embroiled in this life of crime, he cleans himself up and gets Ana the phone she mentioned. From there, the relationship takes quite the dark turn, as this is a love story bathed in blood and gasoline.
While the love story is what propels the plot forward, it doesn’t feel nearly developed enough. It’s in these moments where the script and actors become rather cliché, which is unfortunate. The subject matter surrounding the young relationship is interesting on its own, so the film could only have benefitted from a subplot with a stronger backbone; and the same can be said with a separate story involving a corrupt police official. Only glimpses are shown of him dealing with the bosses of the gasoline theft, so much is desired from this political angle. Because of this, The Gasoline Thieves has a complex premise that is wedged between two stories that simply pale in comparison.
The strongest aspect of this film is its brutal authenticity; there are a few moments that expertly lull the viewer into a false sense of security. Nito primarily uses a handheld camera for the film, so it also allows a layer of realism to bleed through the screen. It’s a bit ineffective when it comes to darker scenes or fights, but overall, the subtle camerawork pays off. For a problem that is growing as quick as it is in Mexico, the stakes of the film should match the reality. And while it does a decent job with major developments, diving into more real world implications would have greatly benefitted the film.
Overall, where The Gasoline Thieves shows promise is how it excels in its delivery. Brutally honest at times, Nito is clearly not holding back as a filmmaker, and that’s greatly appreciated. As is the case with many debuts, it is a bit rough around the edges, but only experience can change that. Hopefully, Nito will continue to address problems in a manner that feels authentic. The Gasoline Thieves will not fully educate its audience on the problem that is occurring in Mexico, but hopefully, it will encourage research into the topic. The more eyes that look into the problem provide a better chance at finding a solution, and in this regard, Nito succeeds.
The Gasoline Thieves is celebrating its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is part of the International Narrative Competition.