Dirty Pretty Things, On the Run

It’s not often that I find myself wholly embracing contemporary thrillers–I’ve seen enough of them to recognize formulas in the trailers alone; their emphasis on gruesome aesthetics and heavy-handed shock tactics, sexy serial killers, or cops who decide that this time, it’s personal.

Happily, I can fully recommend two exemplary thrillers currently getting some play: Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), just released on DVD, and the first installment of Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogy (2002) series, On the Run (Cavale), which I just saw last night. Both films benefit from an almost old-fashioned love of character and formal construction, leaving most of the violence offscreen while emphasizing psychological and thematic concerns.

Frears’ film, with its justifiably Oscar-nominated screenplay, is set in working class London. A medical doctor and illegal immigrant from Nigeria, Okwie (Chiwetel Ejiofor), drives taxies during the day and works at the front desk of a hotel at night, offering random favors to his employers in order to remain hidden from authorities. His closest friends are a prostitute, an Asian coroner at a nearby hospital, and Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish immigrant also trying to lay low. Each character navigates the thorny ethical realm between personal compromise and desperate initiative, and Frears contextualizes their struggle through acutely observed locations: secluded offices, empty basements, and cluttered tenement housing. Fast-paced and sensitively wrought, the film is a riveting and inspired portrait of the shadow world society creates (and feeds upon) and the people trapped within it.

Belvaux, a Belgian actor appearing in French cinema throughout the ’80s and ’90s, has written, directed, and starred in his latest project–three different genre films (thriller, comedy, and drama) centered around the same characters. The US release of Trilogy has been delayed for almost a year but all three films will be showing in L.A. by the end of the week.

The offscreen sounds of a jailbreak accompany On the Run‘s title sequence over a black screen, and a series of jumpcuts from within the getaway car convey the subsequent escape. As the escapee, Bruno (Belvaux), hides out in Grenoble near the French Alps and assembles his plan for striking back against those who betrayed him, the details slowly emerge. Bruno is a violent, militant leftist who arms himself to the teeth and ingeniously devises ways to circumvent the police, committing himself to a one-man revolution. The dramatic irony is that the more Bruno attempts to force a communist reality, the more he isolates himself from human community.

The film spends a lot of time with Bruno, both in his elaborate activities and shootouts and in his privacy, eating ravioli from cans warmed over Sterno flames and assembling/disassembling his weaponry to pass the time while hiding in a storage shed. This approach might have proved wearisome to the audience (which, of course is part of its raison d’Ítre), but Belvaux fills his scenes with immediate physical action in the tradition of Bresson or the Dardennes in a way that perpetuates interest. Bruno is always traveling, collecting, manipulating, forcing–and getting nowhere.

Along the way, Bruno encounters various other characters in dire straights, one of whom provides an alternative hiding place for him but is herself suffering from drug addiction. Typically, Bruno’s solution is utilitarian–deprive or supply her with drugs so long as she can be useful to him–but his ambivalence whenever necessity isn’t dictating reveals him to be a genuine, if severely misdirected, idealist. His criminal obsessions thus take on a tragic tone a la Il Bidone (1955) or Pickpocket (1959).

Word on the street is that Trilogy is uneven in quality, but if so then On the Run must surely be one of its high points. It’s a taught and intense portrait of the destructive consequences of merging cutthroat tactics with visionary utopianism, and one that maintains its steady, sober gaze upon the frail human beings at its center. It’s certainly the most engrossing thriller I’ve seen in a while.