All hell breaks loose south of the border when a lovestruck fourteen year old joins a criminal syndicate to impress a girl. The Gasoline Thieves kicks off, expectedly, once the young Lalo, played by Eduardo Banda, joins the shady underworld of illegal gasoline extraction. Thus, a character study of Lalo unfolds, as he struggles with love, family, and the dangers of growing up too fast.

All hell breaks loose south of the border…

Edgar Nito’s feature-length debut utilizes experienced cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez to capture a bleak landscape with exquisite precision. Contrasting the back-lit darkness, when the gasoline theft is carried out, against the bright, sunny backdrop of a schoolyard playground, we are introduced to two worlds that must inevitably collide. Nito and Ramírez also make creative use of tracking shots, letting us follow the characters in real time.

In addition, special effects artist Gerardo Muñoz shines in only his second film credit. His work lends significant credibility and believability to the brutality of Lalo’s world. Once his story begins to take off, the consequences of Lalo’s decisions manifest in a physical way that is utterly realistic.

However, in contrast to the solid performances and exquisite cinematography, the meandering, dour story beats leave The Gasoline Thieves running on empty. The opening act devotes entirely too much runtime to setting up side plots that end up going nowhere. Further, the script lays out multiple character motivations, yet ultimately chooses the most shallow among them.

dour story beats leave The Gasoline Thieves running on empty

This latter issue is, quite likely, part of the overall point of the film. As the sum total of Lalo’s decisions come home to roost, he’s driven to a tense, uneasy finale. Much to Nito’s credit, a heavy shroud of suspense hangs over the finale, leaving the audience guessing up until the final seconds. Unfortunately, it also largely undercuts any morals or takeaways, leaving behind only empty nihilism and depression.

Again, this may likely have been the point, to which I would only ask, “Why?” It’s arguably more provocative and unique than other films, and it may serve the desired artistic purpose. However, in my opinion the creative decisions here detract from the overall viewing experience. As always, your mileage may vary.

The Gasoline Thieves made its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.