Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DHEEPAN is director Jacques Audiard’s audition to direct a gritty middling action-adventure film for a major studio, who will exult, “he’s the next Baltasar Kormákur!” He’s not, and this film isn’t seriously for the auteur’s reel, but you’ll get that feeling after the indie drama with an action tinge ends. After finding success and acclaim with A PROPHET and RUST AND BONE, it comes as a bit of a surprise that his latest offering is rather weak in the spots where it should be strong.
Sri LankanTamil fighter Dheepan Natarajan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is the fake name of a dead guy our hero takes in order to emigrate to France. He’s also manufactured a nice family for himself to better his chances, roping in independent Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and orphaned nine-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby, who continues this year’s “trend” of tremendous performances by child actors) to fill the roles of wife and daughter respectively. All they seek are papers – their ticket to a better life than the one they left behind in the homeland that haunts Dheepan’s peaceful dreams. He finds a place to call home and work as a janitor in Le Pré, a low-income apartment complex in the city’s suburbs. Yalini finds work as a caretaker and Illayaal enrolls in school. Things are peachy-keen until violence, springing from conflicts between the projects’ thugs, criminals and low-lifes, bleeds into the Natarajan’s lives, causing their “fight or flight” reflexes to go into overdrive.
Audiard, along with screenwriters Noé Debré and frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, pepper in tension relief humor well – like when Yalini and Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) are casually chatting, or when she and Dheepan discuss what the French find funny. Social justice topics are dealt with in a digestible, understandable and never preachy manner. There’s a lot of humanity injected into the immigrant’s plight. Dheepan’s deep-brewing PTSD is one of the few concepts that attains some sense of closure. Performances from the entire ensemble are all solid – especially Antonyhasan, who’d only been in one film prior, and Srinivasan, who makes her debut. Each infuses vulnerability and nuance into their role.
Nevertheless, there are many blights. Some may find it hard to connect with a few of the characters – particularly Yalini, who never stokes audience sympathy as she remains selfish for a lot of the run time. Narrative conceits are floated and then not expanded upon further: When Dheepan first arrives in France, there’s an urgency to his life eluding authorities, but it’s abandoned minutes later. When Illayaal acts out after being alienated by her female classmates, we never return to see what happens. Same goes for when Dheepan’s Colonel (Vasanth Selvam) appears, threatening him for money. We think he might blackmail our hero, yet there’s no conclusion. Finally, we think we’re getting somewhere when Dheepan goes all Charles Bronson on the thugs; however, the tonal change comes out of nowhere. While this sequence is well executed – with the camera staying on him in a claustrophobic tight shot – it’s far too fleeting.
Potential is a terrible thing to waste. Though DHEEPAN isn’t terrible, it’s just not as good as it could have been.
DHEEPAN played AFI Fest on November 8 and 10. It will be released by Sundance Selects on April 2016.