Editor's note: The following red band trailer contains graphic content.
“The Last Circus” certainly won’t be curing anyone’s clown phobia, but there’s not much else it doesn’t do. Juggling romantic melodrama, gruesome horror and even a few snippets of a war film, Alex de la Iglesia’s epic portrayal of the immortal struggle between two clowns — one happy, one sad — is moving, gorgeously directed and has some of the most creatively grotesque makeup of any film this year.
The film opens with a dynamic, absolutely insane action scene, as a clown (Santiago Segura) is plucked out of a performance and enlisted to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Still in costume, the clown is given a machete and manages to cut down an entire unit. He’s promptly captured and, after a failed breakout attempt, uses his dying words to tell his son Javier his destiny: to be the sad clown — the punchline — because he’s seen too much tragedy to make children laugh on his own. While lengthy prologues that climax with the death of the main character’s father are rather commonplace, it’s easily forgiven here solely because it gives us the indelible image of a clown massacring soldiers with a machete.
The film picks up again as Javier (Carlos Areces) joins a new circus as the partner of happy clown Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), who has his claws deep into trapeze girl Natalia (Carolina Bang). As Javier falls for Natalia despite her hopeless devotion to the abusive Sergio, the film gets more and more surreal until it reaches a fever point of grotesque melodrama.
In terms of structure, “The Last Circus” doesn’t bring anything original to the table. The love triangle here gets a little too “Water For Elephants” at times, but the deliberate pacing and gorgeous, often bizarre, imagery keeps things interesting.
The epic struggle between Javier and Sergio is slightly more interesting. Areces steals the film as Javier, easily jumping between the stoicism of the sad clown and the bloodthirsty ferociousness of the man beneath it; and while Sergio occasionally becomes a one-note jerk, de la Torre’s portrayal suggests enough internal conflict to keep the character fresh. The object of their affections, played by Bang, is a bit more frustrating as her character never quite figures out what she wants or what’s good for her, but Bang is game to do whatever the film asks of her.
As the conflict between Sergio and Javier intensifies, the film picks up as well. In the second half the film’s characters begin to fall apart both physically and mentally, and the superb makeup makes those transformations absolutely convincing.
Not only do the characters go insane in the second act, but the entire film flies off the rails in the best way possible.
After the opening war scene gives the audience a taste of epic brutality, the film holds off as long as it can before letting the clowns rain violence down on those around them once again. Once Javier and Sergio truly lose it, things get very violent very quickly, and it’s a joy to watch thanks to de la Iglesia’s undeniable eye for action scenes.
“The Last Circus” is certainly a film that resides comfortably off the beaten path, and while its plot is rather standard, its execution is anything but. Add that to a few great, manic performances, truly inspired moments of lunacy, and a standout job by director de la Iglesia and “The Last Circus” is easy to recommend.