There is a haunting opening as the camera slow-dollies back from a Middle Eastern desert window to reveal a group of children having their heads almost ritualistically shaved. Radiohead’s “You And Whose Army?” kicks in as an effective backdrop, reaching the crescendo as a child stares through the screen into us. Does he blame us for what seems to be the robbing of his childhood? What circumstances brought him here?
The plot of Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar nominated thriller follows multiple narratives in 2009 and the 1970s. Two twins, Simon and Jeanne set out to fulfill their mother’s, Nawal, last wishes and deliver a letter to a father that has been dead and a brother they never knew existed. When they journey to the Middle East to find these two men, they uncover their mother’s tumultuous hidden past. Flashback sequences detail her journey through a civil war and her part in it.
Previous to this film, the only film of Denis Villeneuve’s that I had seen was 2013’s “Prisoners”, which was my favorite film that year. Villeneuve directs this film with the same sort of almost Hitchcockian-at-moments mastery that he did with “Prisoners”. Although there is this central mystery that is really intriguing throughout, it’s the characters that propel it forward. And when the revelations come to pass, it’s nothing less than profound and shocking. Even in the most cinematically grand moments of the film, Villeneuve grounds it with a realistic aesthetic, focusing on the darkest aspects of the scene. This is greatly helped by superb performances from the leads Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette. The score from Grégoire Hetzel is sparse, but very effective. Aside from that, it’s safe to say Villeneuve’s favorite Radiohead album is “Amnesiac” as he uses not only “You And Whose Army?” and “Like Spinning Plates” to hypnotic effect, cementing this film as having the most definitive cinematic uses of Radiohead.
“Death is never the end of the story. It always leaves tracks,” says the notary to Simon. That’s a central theme in this story, because through Nawal’s death, a new life begins for all those involved. What sins and privileges do we inherit from our parents? Do we inevitably fight the same wars they fought? Or is it that only the offspring can fulfill the lives of their parents?