Review: Sky Rojo 2021
By Verónica Sánchez, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Asier Etxeandia
You won’t hear terms like trabajadora sexual – that’s Spanish for “sex worker” – in Netflix’s new series about three trafficked women on the run. If you are familiar with previous series from Álex Pina and Esther Martínez Lobato – including the huge, international hit Money Heist (La casa de Papel) and the English-language, Ibiza-set crime caper White Lines – then you can probably guess at the tone.
Sky Rojo is less about in the grim reality of sexual exploitation, and more about the gaudy thrills of exploitation cinema. They’re calling it “Latin pulp”. Me gusta. The title translates as “red leatherette”, which is what covers the seats of the girls’ getaway vehicle; all the better to hide the blood splatter. It’s also an emblematic fabric choice for a show that revels in its own trashy glamour.
We first arrive at Las Novias Club, a brothel in the middle of the Tenerife desert, in the company of Coral (Verónica Sánchez), whose convertible screeches to a halt underneath its Vegas strip-style neon sign (the pill-popping Coral’s driving consistently puts the high into Highway Code). At Las Novias, women dress and behave in accordance with the characters projected on to them by the club owner, Romeo (Pain and Glory’s Asier Etxeandia). “With his letch’s eye, he brought out the fantasy woman that each of us had inside,” says Coral in a narration that’s equal parts Henry Hill from Goodfellas and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, as well as a stylistic carryover from Money Heist.
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Coral is, according to Romeo, “sophistication … what ordinary men desire after watching a French film”. Wendy (the Argentinian pop star Lali Espósito) is the “wild cat that everyone wants to tame” and Gina (Yany Prado) is “innocence, with that naive face of yours”, plus a propensity to romantic daydreaming, that turns out to be more dangerous than it sounds.
Does Romeo actually possess a psychological acuity that Coral is loth to credit him with? Even once the women have escaped, these assumed personas seem harder to shake than the gun-toting goons on their tail. This sexy deconstruction of sexy fantasy is one example of how Sky Rojo has its cake and (sexily) eats it, too. Pina has said in interview that the casting of Spanish, Argentinian and Cuban actors to play a trio of lead characters with corresponding nationalities was intended to accurately represent the reality of prostitution in contemporary Spain. Maybe so, but it also seems like a shrewd and unsubtle attempt to consolidate Money Heist’s pan-Latin fandom by making a few more of the world’s 400 million Spanish speakers feel represented by their friendly streaming giant.
Sky Rojo establishes early on, and with a clarity brash enough to transcend any language barrier, what matters most. Namely, who we should be booing and who we should be cheering on. Romeo is a proper villain, a sadistic and sleazy exploiter of the vulnerable, a moustache-twirling maestro of misogyny, who says things such as “God gives whores time off with their menses every month,” in response to a perfectly reasonable inquiry regarding the statutory holiday requirement. If Quentin Tarantino directed a Dickens adaptation, this guy would be the workhouse overseer. So if, say, a poor, desperate woman were to take, say, a whisky decanter from Romeo’s desk when he wasn’t looking and, say, cold-cock him round the head with it, there’s not a court in the land that would convict.
That’s what makes it so confounding that our heroines are often waylaid by some kind of moral quandary about their actions. The fear of violent retribution may cost them a few minutes of panic, sure, by why waste time wondering if they’ve done the right thing or not? They should be out of there, hot-footing it to freedom with Beyoncé blasting on the car stereo and not so much as a backward glance.
Romeo’s heavies, Moisés (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Christian (Enric Auquer), are also unnecessarily complicated by the gradual unfolding of a semi-sympathetic backstory about a disabled mum and their own tortured sibling relationship, detail that goes beyond the requirements of comic relief.
This isn’t intriguing moral complexity, it’s irritating moral confusion and it threatens to detract from the otherwise uncomplicated pleasure of genre entertainment performed at breakneck speeds. Still, Sky Rojo’s punchy 25-minute runtime is never long enough to truly try the patience. Those wild cliffhanger endings should have you slamming “next episode” faster than Coral slams the accelerator at a busy intersection.