There’s an indication early on in French director Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning drama about a Sri Lankan immigrant named Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) that things are not to be taken at face value. We meet the titular character wearily placing dried palm fronds into a pile — which reveals itself to be a funeral pyre. The young woman frantically running around a camp — her name is Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) — is not for her lost child; she’s looking for any orphan who she can pass off as her own offspring, in order to obtain a fake passport. The girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) she finds will accompany both of these adults to France, where the three strangers will pose as a family.
Watching Dheepan selling neon mouse ears and cheap trinkets, two euros a pop, along Parisian streets, you’d think he was just another of the country’s many faceless, displaced foreigners, instead of an ex-Tamil Tiger who fought in his homeland’s bloody civil war. And when this trio of asylum-seekers settles in to a banlieue housing estate, where our man works as a caretaker, you think you’re in for a straightfaced drama about Europe’s current refugee crisis and the rigors of 21st-century assimilation. What the director ultimately has in mind, however, is a bloody revenge thriller.
Audiard has long been a socially conscious poet of screen violence, from the cellblock power plays of his peerless Candide-in-prison epic A Prophet (2009) to the bareknuckle fight circuit of his rough-hewn romance Rust and Bone (2012); even his updated take on the 1970s Harvey Keitel vehicle Fingers, entitled The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), matches the original punch for sour, conflicted-masculinity punch. Whether or not it was a good idea to bend the material to a violent, action-movie–ish standoff between Dheepan and a gang of warring drug dealers (themselves second-generation youngsters, for the most part) is highly debatable. The filmmaker has said that he and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain wanted to craft a Straw Dogs-style flick and then worked their ways backwards to the diaspora scenario, and you wished the process had been reversed. As undeniably exciting as the choreography of that third-act mayhem is, the transition feels both jarring and a little too pat; after a rampage involving a machete, a Molotov cocktail and a screwdriver, you half expect our avenging-angel hero to take off a sheriff’s badge and throw it in the dirt.
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That’s not to say that the 11th hour switch-up completely undoes any previously incurred goodwill. (Though the less said about the movie’s coda, which feels like something a Hollywood studio would have slapped on a melodrama in the 1930s, the better.) Even if Antonythasan, himself a former Tamil Tiger and warzone refugee who sought sanctuary in France, didn’t channel a sense of lived-in authenticity to the role, he still has a compelling, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him screen presence. The interplay between the cast, especially the actor’s scenes with Srinivasan’s makeshift spouse, provide a deep, emotional give-and-take. And Audiard and cinematographer Éponine Momenceau deliver a handful of images — Dheepan walking down the boulevard as his colorful toys blink in the night, a naked woman waltzing into the shadows, a shoot-out snaking through smoky hallways and staircases — that are genuinely swoonworthy.
It’s simply that Dheepan‘s cultural clashes are richer than its man-vs-thug ones. Tackling torn-from-the-headline fodder through a genre filter can be a great way of exploring complicated, wonky issues while defanging the message-mongering and kiboshing any Kumbaya sing-alongs. Drop gunplay that runs the risk of feeling tonally off-the-mark at best and borderline gratuitous at worst into any movie, however, and you run the risk shooting yourself in the foot.