Bad on the inside
As it runs its exceptional course, this prize-winning prison drama from France shapes itself into something more like a starkly astute gangster movie, but without ever really leaving the confines of the penitentiary in which it is set.
The central figure is Malik (Tahar Rahim), a young convict, an illiterate orphan and loner from a vaguely Arab background. Another prisoner, the Corsican crime boss César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), pegs him as just the sort of misfit who can be enlisted to kill another prisoner, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi).
Malik is initially a hapless petty criminal, but he is forced to see that he must carry out the killing if he himself is to survive in this jail where César’s word is law. And so, in his crudely inexpert way, he murders Reyeb, and soon finds himself winning a small and lowly place in César’s prison gang.
Eventually, Malik is running errands for César and others on the outside during furlough stints, but well before that he’s also beginning to get a new and previously unimagined sense of his own possibilities owing partly to the example set by César, but also to what he learns and absorbs from other young inmates, Corsicans and Arabs alike. For a while, he is caught between ethnic groups, but that too becomes part of his serendipitous education in this outlaw coming-of-age tale.
Director Jacques Audiard frames all this in brusquely ironic terms. The infrequent episodes of violence are terse and ferocious without ever becoming conventional or generic. And Malik’s encounters with the more grounded characters all become dynamic factors in a kind of subterranean epic, as the young man awakens into a more vigorous and focused sense of his own dark destiny.
César is both mentor and manipulator, teacher and tormentor. Malik’s slightly older friend Ryad (Adel Bencherif) teaches him to read and write and guides him toward useful contacts on the outside. And the ghost of Reyeb visits him in a series of semi-mystical moments throughout the action.
Arestrup renders César, the story’s grandly ramshackle godfather figure, as a trenchant mixture of bile and pathos. Even better, Rahim inhabits the central role in a thoroughly unactorish way. His Malik drifts from clueless delinquency to stoical ingenuity and outlaw authority with a naturalness and lucidity that emerges more in the ways he looks at the world than in any action the script obliges him to do.