A movie that won’t win any awards from the Mexican-American Border Tourism board, “Inhale” takes the idea of organ-transplant tourism and drops it squarely in the middle of a dramatic thriller. It’s not a comfortable fit.
Directed by Baltasar Kormakur from a script by Walter Doty and John Claflin, the film plops a privileged American attorney, Paul Stanton (Dermot Mulroney), on to the drug-cartel mean streets of Juarez. He’s carrying big stashes of cash, trying to buy a pair of lungs for his dying daughter. Can you spell trouble down Mexico way?
Kormakur initially bounces back and forth in time, following Stanton as he runs in circles in Juarez, from one bad neighborhood to another, in search of a mysterious Dr. Navarro, who supposedly has a pipeline to transplantable organs and a way to move newcomers to the top of the transplant list. In flashback, we see what leads Paul to this crisis.
He’s a principled prosecutor, so much so that he’s prosecuting a man who crippled the pedophile who molested the man’s daughter. But Paul’s daughter has a serious lung ailment that puts her closer and closer to terminal crisis. Despite his best efforts, his daughter isn’t high enough on the transplant list to make a difference. When she has a particularly bad bout that threatens imminent death, he takes matters into his own hands.
He confronts a local judge (Sam Shepard), whose heart problems magically disappeared a few months earlier. Paul has learned that, in fact, the judge was able to slip into Juarez for an illicit heart transplant that saved his life. He shakes the judge down for the info and goes to Mexico. You could say he’s looking for lungs in all the wrong places.
His clueless bit of transplant tourism includes being run around by wily local grifters, all of whom promise help but just want to rip him off. Somehow (and it’s a stretch, believe me), he survives and, finally, figures out where and how to find Dr. Navarro.
The issue is a real one; thousands of people die every year without signing an organ donor card – and thousands more die for lack of a transplantable organ. There are never enough organs to go around – which leads to desperate measures such as the kind of “organ tourism” suggested here.
But while Kormakur builds to a moment of high anxiety involving a tragic Hobson’s choice for the increasingly desperate Paul, getting there involves going the long way around.
It also feels more than a little stereotypical. Yes, Juarez is at the epicenter of Mexico’s drug violence – but it’s hard to believe that every corner is littered with bad guys, every person is on the take and every criminal can smell this guy coming like dogs at a butcher shop. Plus the idea that one ignorant tourist could stumble into this many wasp’s nests in a couple days – and emerge alive – is particularly hard to swallow. Indeed, that may be the film’s biggest stretch – not that he could find trouble, but that he could walk away from it with just a few stitches and wounded pride.
There’s very little subtlety to the film; it’s pitched at an intense level from start to finish, even in its quiet moments. Plus, with a child’s life at stake, the manipulative aspects of the story are thrown into even starker relief.
You may get through “Inhale” without being bothered by any of these elements. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.