Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Cast: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Nadia Farès, Dominique Sanda, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Didier Flamand

MPAA Rating: R (for violence/grisly images and language)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 6/22/01

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The serial killer thriller was a big trend a few years ago, and it only had a few great successes. It was the ones that went beyond the genre that stood out. The Silence of the Lambs, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, worked as a character study, and Seven, which I think is the best of the recent examples, turned into a modern-day morality play. Now comes The Crimson Rivers, a film that suggests the French are a bit behind of but highly influenced by American trends. It stays pretty close to the conventions of the genre. There are two detectives, both of whom are reckless and play by their own rules. There are a series of murder scenes, each one more disturbing than the last. There’s a game that the killer plays with the detectives, inevitably leading one of the detectives to come to the conclusion that the killer wants to be caught. And yet the film has a finely tuned drive, an intriguing build in its plot, and a unique style that balances atmosphere and absurdity. It’s not profound, but it is entertaining.

In the mountains of France, Commissioner Pierre Niemans (Jean Reno) is called in to investigate the murder of a man whose body was found strung up 150 feet. The body was brought to a hospital connected to a high profile university in a valley surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The school can sustain itself for months if anything goes wrong, due to the fact that it creates its own electricity and water. The victim was tortured for hours, his hands and eyes removed (unique for each individual—biological identity), and the sockets filled with rainwater. Meanwhile, newly transferred detective Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) investigates the desecration of a mausoleum housing the body of a young girl killed twenty years ago when she was hit by a speeding truck and the theft of the same girl’s school in which only records regarding the years she attended were stolen. Kerkerian begins to investigate the circumstances of her death, while Niemans learns more about the school. It’s a very exclusive and intimately populated institution, comprised mostly of professors and their children—all carrying on the legacy of knowledge.

The two investigations eventually overlap, but I give the movie credit for keeping them apart for so long, making their collaboration part of the plot and not the impetus for it. I liked that both of them have no qualms with looking over rules, and I especially liked a tiny dialogue exchange that results. Niemans tells his new partner that he works alone, to which Kerkerian responds, "That makes two of us." The script by Jean-Christophe Grangé (based on his novel) and director Mathieu Kassovitz starts intriguing but becomes a bit predictable and thin. Later developments have either or both of the detectives discovering a new corpse and then chasing, being chased by, or being shot at by the killer or someone trying to cover up the killer’s tracks ("It’s a treasure hunt. Each corpse leads to the next."). Eventually the identity of the killer is uncovered, and while it’s obvious who it is earlier than the revelation, the film throws a twist at the end just to prove us wrong.

These are expected aspects of the genre, and they are handled with craftsmanship. Sure the movie borrows some of its elements from other movies of the genre (one murder scene in particular looks suspiciously similar to one from Silence of the Lambs), but it has a style all its own. It’s a darkly atmospheric and unsettling thriller with some very inventive sequences and not lacking in humor. There’s one scene in which Kerkerian fights with some skinheads, using techniques I doubt they teach at the academy or hate rallies. When Kerkerian first enters their warehouse, the skinheads are playing a video game in the background, and the soundtrack for it becomes the soundtrack for the fight. There are some other such examples, but the film also has the advantage of nature. A few scenes take place in the mountains, including the search for clues where the second body is discovered. At one point, the camera swoops out over the edge of the cliff Niemans and his assistant are rappelling down. Everything leads up to a virtuoso sequence in which cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and some talented special effects artists capture an avalanche’s perspective as it plows toward the climax force majeure fashion (well, not technically).

The Crimson Rivers works as a slight variation on an overly examined genre, but it’s a variation worth experiencing. The plot is a bit thin and the final explanation is a little contrived, but its strong style easily compensates for these rough spots. Who knew the French could put some life into a stale genre?

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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