Jacques Audiard’s two-and-a-half hour epic is about what Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a smart French North African teenager with a 4th grade reading level, managed to learn and achieve while doing six years in an adult prison.
Malik starts with reading and economics, adding a little applied political science and psychology for seasoning; a smidgen of Corsican dialect comes in handy if the people running things are the Corsican mob, especially if they like to talk and assume that the North African kid hanging around sweeping the floor and making the coffee is an idiot.
From this core curriculum, Malik advances to a graduate practicum in psychology, sociology and political science. Along with this, he parlays an offer he cannot refuse—kill or be killed—into a relationship of trust with César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a Corsican version of John Gotti Sr. Malik watches closely how Luciani does business and handles people, then makes his move in his own good time.
The ghost of his first victim, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a North African criminal who had been in protective custody as a witness against the Corsicans before his untimely demise, guides Malik through these treacherous waters. Reyeb is one of the surprisingly good things about this movie: a great piece of character acting by an actor who has not been in many movies but has the energy, presence and imagination to play larger roles.
Another unusual thing about this film and its protagonist is that neither seem the least interested in being, acting or looking ‘cool’. Malik is interested in understanding how this world he has been sucked into works, what he needs to do to survive in it and to make it work for him. The film follows him as he does this.
As in the Baltimore crime series The Wire—and evidently in real life—being behind bars does not appear to have much effect on the day-to-day operations of criminal enterprises, more like an occupational inconvenience or lateral career move. And prosecutors, law enforcement officials and lawyers—besides the bent ones, several of which this movie has—seem almost as far from this world as the ordinary, law-abiding viewer.