February 2010

Arts & Letters

Lost boys

By Luke Davies
Jacques Audiard’s ‘A Prophet’ and John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’

In A Prophet, a dazzling new film about innocence and power from Jacques Audiard (director of The Beat My Heart Skipped, 2005), 19-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) is about to embark on a six-year prison sentence for assaulting a cop. Polite and deferential, Malik is hard to read at first. The little we glean about his life is framed in terms of negatives: he has no contacts, no relatives; he didn’t grow up with his parents, but in juvenile centres. If he’s experiencing fear as he enters the chaos of the prison at Brécourt, he doesn’t show it. He’s a man without a face, wily and wary.

Malik is a mutt, of Corsican and Arabic descent. His Muslim cousins want nothing to do with him, while the Corsicans think he’s a “dirty Arab”. César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) is the Corsican mafia boss inside the prison and, seeing value in the fact that Malik speaks Arabic, coerces the neophyte into carrying out a series of tasks that will prove his mettle. The first of these is horrendous and gripping; Malik somehow pulls it off and from that point gets to enjoy the protection of the Corsicans.

The film (released nationally on 11 February) charts, with a dark glee, Malik’s improbable rise from invisibility to dominance. What gives it such dynamic energy is the seamlessness with which this transition unfolds: tactical moves and power shifts are so minute and so gradual we don’t always notice them at first, and we are never ahead of the character’s motives or plans. Initially, mute and bewildered, Malik can only react to circumstances as they present themselves. Later, he becomes a positively Machiavellian diplomat.

The Corsicans control the prison with the help of corrupt guards, though Muslim numbers are growing. Veteran actor Arestrup plays César with equal measures of malicious threat and, as old power structures begin to shift, weary dread. Malik, who is subservient when he needs to be, who is nothing if not a chameleon inside the prison, bides his time. Functionally illiterate, he learns to read and write – his first lesson is deeply touching. The years pass. He’s still the Corsicans’ errand boy. He makes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif ), another loner not aligned with the main Arab group. Later, he teams up with Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), who controls a large drug-smuggling operation outside the prison. Malik doesn’t tell the Corsicans about his side activities, but they begin to notice.

 By the time Malik starts taking day-leaves as part of his rehabilitation and reintegration, he’s a different man from the youth who first entered prison: he has volition now, and, increasingly, a deeply creative cunning. But the path to glory is never straight, of course, and he will have to deal with Latif, the Egyptian dealer, and Brahim Lattrache, the Arab mafia boss, and Jacky Marcaggi, the Corsican number one.

A Prophet stumbles in a few small moments, especially when Audiard diverges stylistically from his basic meat-and-potatoes realism. There’s a device, for instance, involving a dead character who keeps appearing, which is largely unnecessary. Similarly, there are some lens closures that we understand intellectually, but that somehow detract from the film’s otherwise pristine narrative purity. There’s some odd business, too, with some dreams and deers – or perhaps it’s dreams of deers. There’s a hint at what the “prophet” actually refers to, but that remains oblique, or at least undeveloped as a concept. Perhaps it’s simply that Malik, while not literally seeing the future, spots future trends before anyone else in the enclosed, brutal world of the prison. Perhaps being the cipher, the apparently blank repository of other people’s biddings, is the key to this skill. Audiard’s own achievement is to make of that blankness, over the course of the film, someone we care about and gun for.

“Straddling everyone,” remarks Brahim Lattrache to Malik. “It’s not too good on your balls.” That’s not going to be a problem, of course, if you learn to float high enough above the chaos and the factions that you straddle. The prison may implode, at least in its current form, and even the corrupt guards may not come through scot-free, but Audiard, when talking about his main character, shows an implicit understanding of where the story’s emotional momentum lies: “Malik is a person who, instead of getting heavier under the weight of events as they transpire, gets lighter, and frees himself, little by little.”

Getting the emotional momentum right proves trickier in Australian film-maker John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (in national release). In McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic fever-dream – a lucently brilliant novel – the protagonist’s wife, in flashback, asks him why they don’t talk about death anymore, as they once had. Answering her own question, she says, “It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.”

“You talk about taking a stand,” she adds, “but there is no stand to take.” She’s right. In a world denuded of everything, devoid even of birds, there is nothing but foraging and fear and grim survival. In both the novel and the film, the wife (Charlize Theron) walks out on father and son into the blighted night, a move that on the one hand calls to mind Captain Oates’s heroic self-sacrifice, leaving Captain Scott’s tent in 1912 – “I am just going outside and may be some time” – and on the other seems more a brutal act of angry despair: “As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness,” she says in the novel, “and I hope it with all my heart.”

She thinks her husband a fool for wanting to try to carry on. “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born,” she says, in both novel and film, of their child (Kodi Smit-McPhee). That is, procreation makes sense only in a world which even in the most general way can be said to be ongoing.

That is certainly not this world, depicted so hauntingly by McCarthy, and so strikingly by Hillcoat, with production designer Chris Kennedy and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Across an entire continent the population numbers only hundreds and cannibalism abounds. Yet for the Man (Viggo Mortensen), there is a stand to take: love is enough, protection is its duty.

McCarthy’s book is heart-wrenching and love-soaked, the most tender and intimate of his entire acclaimed corpus. It operates as both hymn and elegy to the world’s anxieties. For all its bleakness, its exquisite language buoys it, and reading the novel is a radiant experience. The film is gorgeous, in a horrible way, but its greater coolness and distance shows just how difficult it can be to translate to screen the innate psychic warmth of great literature. This is a shame, though it’s hard to know just how it might have been done better, since it is a faithful adaptation of the book – or at least its salient events.

The Man and the Boy trudge through the barren, monochromatic void, heading for the coast. Movement is all that matters. The thinly populated world is full of dangers. Bands of cannibal marauders roam the highways. There are only refugees and robbers. “Do you ever wish you would die?” the Man asks an old man (Robert Duvall) they encounter on the road. “No,” he replies. “It’s foolish to ask for luxuries at times like these.”

Physical “luxuries” are long gone, too. In one scene, the Man extracts an old can of Coke from a seemingly empty vending machine and when the Boy takes a tentative, expectant sip and winces at the sweetness, you realise just how completely this world is the only one he has ever known. Boon comes in the form of an extensive food cache in a bunker, but the need to keep moving and fear of being caught outweigh the need for decent nutritional replenishment and they take with them only what they can pack into their rickety, tarp-covered trolley.

“I will kill anyone who touches you,” the Man says to his son, “that’s my job.” Yet Mortensen chooses to play the Man weepily, with moments of hoarse, high-pitched distress, his voice barely above a whisper. This seems an odd choice. In the novel, where we learn of his interior fears through the narrator, the character is staunch and reticent, and this is the ultimate vehicle of his protectiveness: the Boy need not know just how bad things are and giving him an extra iota of optimism is a pure kindness. The film shifts this by degrees so that the Boy seems more panicked, more embroiled in his father’s existential terror, and it feels at times like child torture.

The problem might have to do with the directorial point of view – it all feels too detached, in a way that the book in its searing intimacy does not. At one crucial moment, the Man, coming across an old piano in a long-deserted house, is wracked with sobbing. But where we’d want to see the face, the eyes, Hillcoat frames from behind; we see Mortensen in beautiful chiaroscuro, in a tableau of grief, but we don’t see, and live, the grief dramatically. When Hillcoat does allow that to happen, the result can be magical: there’s a moment where they’ve entered the Man’s childhood home and the Boy gets spooked by his father leaning on the mantelpiece, remembering Christmas stockings, on the verge of tears. When the Boy suggests they leave, Mortensen’s lost “Huh?” is piercingly moving.

There is, however, too much tableau and not enough acting. These are among the last faces of humanity, and we’d like to linger with them more, get to know them better, nestle in their sorrows. Instead, we’re only really left with the visual exoticness of this terrible world. The characters talk about the “fire inside” that must be carried: “Are we still the good guys?” “Of course we are.” And although the film continually riffs on this “we’re the ones who are carrying the moral goodness” theme, you don’t feel it. Mortensen delivers a gut-wrenching performance, the effect of which, ultimately, strangely, is not gut-wrenching. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose soundtrack for Andrew Dominik’s stunning The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) was so sublime, have created a score that here feels like wallpaper and never allows you to experience any tension.

Hillcoat created moments of claustrophobic tension in his brutal, disturbing 1988 prison drama Ghosts of the Civil Dead – though that film also kept a cool, clinical distance. The Proposition (2005) received near-universal praise, but beautiful though it looked, it was a problematic film; at its heart the narrative was jumbled and never fully came together. The Road is simpler than both those films and that is one of its strengths: it is a haiku to The Proposition’s villanelle, and its all-pervasive apocalyptic melancholy is tonally, at least, very coherent.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: February 2010
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