Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a young Arab, spends his early days in prison as a loner, attempting to keep to himself and stay away from the racial tension seething throughout the entire prison facility. He’s out for himself but can’t put up much of a fight. In the yard, a couple of men beat him up and take his shoes. He chases after them, tries to beat the two men down, but only ends up in the gutter again. Alone, he’s not going to get anywhere in the prison.
Enter Ceasar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), the most powerful prisoner in the joint with connections and resources that reach out beyond the walls and fences of the prison. He promises Malik protection if he’ll kill an Arab who Ceaser wants out of the picture. Malik has no choice, swiftly falling into organized crime and the mob mentality, perpetuating more and more of the tyrant and oppression that first greeted him.
Therefore, the entire film is a criticism of the prison system, showing how putting together a bunch of criminals will only perpetuate more crime. And who can blame them? It’s a dog eat dog world in the prison and the only way to survive is to gain the most power. The fearful either overcome their fears and rise to power or become the lowest and most venerable creature on the food chain.
Malik walks a fine line between the two. On the one hand, he’s able to ascend into the higher ranks of the system and eventually get his own piece of the deliciously succulent organized crime pie. However, he’s still an Arab and that means that even amid those he’s helped gain more power, he is seen as a lesser member. Furthermore, his own kind has rejected him for joining the other side.
But despite the interesting angle of the storytelling and the new setting, it’s a tale that modern audiences have seen many times. Goodfellas and The Godfather dictate a lot of the plotting of the film and most people will know where this film is going before it even gets started. That doesn’t make the beats less interesting but it makes it a bit disappointing when the film decides not to work with the formula in a compelling way.
The film also tries to capture the entire breath of those films at a hefty two hours and 35 minutes. The film only centers around three characters and while each one has an involving arc, by the end it becomes clear that the film is a bit too long and spent too much time setting up a lot of elements that end up not being that important. The last act in particular derails the film tonally and narratively.
The final act also eludes to the title of the film which proves very perplexing, an excessive element of the world that has little bearing on the actual narrative or characters. It’s a bit hokey and, at times, poorly implemented and doesn’t fit the mood of the piece at all. It’s best to leave it unspoken for those in the audience who don’t want to have the surprise spoiled, but the surprise ends up being more jarring than exciting.
Even with these few missteps, it’s hard to discount all the film does right. It’s a tried and true story, but the film finds a compelling way to revitalize it through a modern, socially relevant take. Will it stand up as a classic crime film years from now? Of course not. There are too many missteps in the pacing and a couple of unnecessary elements to make it ascend to the realm of great crime films. Or, at least, that’s my prediction.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing