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Issa Lopez Getty.jpg

If You Loved 'True Detective: Night Country,’ Check Out Issa López's Debut Film 'Tigers Are Not Afraid'

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 25, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | February 25, 2024 |


Issa Lopez Getty.jpg

The fourth season of HBO’s True Detective was the first one made without the involvement of creator Nic Pizzolatto. This time around, the crime noir, which follows an investigation at an Alaskan research station, was directed and largely written by Issa López. The Mexican filmmaker had pitched a crime drama to the network before being asked to fold it into the True Detective IP, something that Pizzolatto has been sad and petty about for many weeks now. Reviews have generally been positive-to-enthusiastic, with actors Kali Reis and Jodie Foster singled out for their sharp performances. While prepping her concept for True Detective, López decided to make her series a ‘dark mirror’ of the first season, telling Vanity Fair, ‘“Where True Detective is male and it’s sweaty, Night Country is cold and it’s dark and it’s female.’ Her influences included Stanley Kubrick, Alien, the music of Billie Eilish, and the Dyatlov Pass incident.



True Detective was always, for better or worse, the singular creation of its showrunner, and López is continuing in that tradition. It’s a rarity for a Latina woman to write, direct, and be the showrunner for any series, let alone one with this kind of budget and scope. Reading interviews with López as she promotes the show (and skilfully passes over the Pizzolatto of it all), you sense her incredible enthusiasm for the work. Even with another person’s IP pasted onto her vision, you can see her vision at work and its myriad influences. It certainly makes me eager to see more work from her, although I must admit that I was already on the Issa López train thanks to her stunning feature debut. So, if you loved Night Country, now is the time to check out Tigers Are Not Afraid.

Released in 2007 under the Spanish title Vuelven, the film is a crime horror with elements of magical realism. The protagonist, Estrella, is a young Mexican girl living in a town left devastated by drug cartels. While working on a fairy tale writing assignment, her school is attacked. Her teacher hands her three pieces of chalk which she says will grant her three wishes. Estrella soon discovers her mother is missing, and that a local orphan named Shine has stolen a gun and phone from a local crime boss’s soldiers, which puts a major target on both of their backs. As the tyrannical gang leader Chino sends his crew to slaughter the kids, and anyone else who gets in their way, the ghosts of this city begin to overwhelm the living.

The influence of directors like Guillermo del Toro is evident in Tigers Are Not Afraid, particularly his dark fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, where children are forced to confront the all-too-real terrors of a cruel world wrecked by adult malice. Like del Toro, López is unflinching in showing the terrible things that happen to the kids, not at the hands of the supernatural but of the grown-ups who have no qualms about engaging in violence (del Toro was such a fan of the film that he became one of its biggest champions and is still a vocal supporter of López.) Much of this is shot in an almost cinema vérité style, a stark portrait of cartel-dominated Mexico where blood on the walls is as common a sight as the graffiti that seems to follow Estrella.



The sudden invasion of the supernatural is a jolt to the system but doesn’t seem all that unexpected in context. When death is everywhere, the remnants of it will be too. Often, there are no clear lines between what is real and what isn’t, as López embraces the symbolism of the eternal confusion of living this way. The way it builds up a brutal yet satisfying climax is of particular note.

López shows a strong gift for directing non-professional actors and children, eliciting from them palpable fear but also the weariness that accompanies living in a world where your safety is not guaranteed. Estrella meets with Shine and his fellow orphans, a group of ‘lost boys’ whose anger at their situation cannot be concealed by their forced maturity. They know that Estrella’s mother was likely kidnapped and either murdered or trafficked, and they know that the phone Shine possesses puts them all at risk, but they’re not so ready to give into the bad guys.

Tigers Are Not Afraid definitely has the signs of a first-time director finding her feet. It isn’t as effortless in its tonal balance as del Toro at his peak, and often the pacing gets languid in a way that doesn’t fit with the supposed urgency of Estrella’s predicament. But the ambition on display is vast, and it was clear from the get-go that López had ideas to burn and the drive to do so. The roots of Night Country are all here.

While I was writing this piece, it was announced that True Detective had been renewed for a fifth season, with López returning as showrunner. She has also signed a new overall deal with HBO, with the network calling her ‘that one-of-a-kind, rare talent that speaks directly to HBO’s creative spirit.’ It’s an exciting new chapter for a filmmaker who is only getting started. It’s all too common for female directors to have a great indie debut then never be given the opportunity to build upon it. Fortunately, she is breaking the mould, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. Suck it, Nic.