Tag Archives: Crime

Memories of Murder (2003)

Someone recently recommended the 2003 South Korean film Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok) from director Joon-ho Bong. It’s based on the true story of Korea’s first serial killer who ran amok raping and killing ten women over a five-year period from 1986-1991 in the rural province of Gyunggi. The victims are young, attractive and are bound and gagged in a very specific fashion. The detectives in this mostly farming region are ill-prepared for such a case, and after the second body surfaces, the police know they have a serial killer on their hands.

The film begins with hefty Detective Park Doo-Man ( Song Kang-ho) riding on farming equipment to the murder site as he’s harassed by (and he in turn harasses) local children. There are few worries about locking down a crime scene–although that does happen later as the body count rises. After the discovery of a second body, Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul–he’s volunteered to help catch the elusive killer, and he’s quietly appalled by the policing methods used by Detective Park Doo-Man and his combat-booted sidekick Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Rwe-ha). These local detectives aren’t above fabricating evidence or beating a confession out of a likely suspect. Forget the Miranda Rights, legal representation, line-ups and any other feature of police investigations. These aspects of crime do not exist for these S. Korean detectives–although some of the police are much more comfortable going over the line than others.

As the murders continue, the detectives desperately resort to local fables and even visit a shaman for results. While there are funny moments as the two rural detectives continue to blunder through the case, there’s also a strong sense of desperation as they know it’s just a matter of time before the killer strikes again in this small community.

 The investigation is not just about the crimes and the identity of the sadistic killer (we see him stalking his victims on several occasions), but this excellent crime film is also about the permanent impact these murders leave behind on the detectives desperate to solve the case. Detective Park Doo-Man becomes a little more humble and less sure of his instincts as the case wears on, whereas Detective Seo Tae-Yoon, a man who’s always acted by the book and whose favourite phrase is: “documents don’t lie” becomes more frustrated and more willing to break the rules in order to catch the killer before he strikes again.

Adding humour to a crime/murder film is always a dodgy thing, and generally–especially in a tale of a serial killer, humour has no comfortable place unless it’s inserted very delicately into the tale. The humour in Memories of Murder is perfect and offers just enough light relief to this grim, tense tale of a sadistic killer and the men determined to catch him.

Marvellously acted, gripping and beautifully photographed, Memories of Murder leaves a chilling lasting impression, and for this viewer, the final scene captures the essence of the entire film.

Tarantino listed Memories of Murder as one of his Top Films since 1992.


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Box 507 (2002)

In the Spanish crime film Box 507 (La Caja 507) Maria (Dafne Fernandez), the only child of bank manager Modesto Pardo (Antonio Resines) and his wife  Angela (Miriam Montilla) was just 16 years old when she died in a horrible fire. It’s now seven years later, and Pardo and his wife are clearly damaged by their loss. Bad luck strikes once again when Pardo’s bank is robbed by a band of criminals who hold Pardo’s wife hostage in order to ensure his cooperation. The bank robbers empty out the vault, and when Pardo–who’s been drugged and duct-taped–wakes up, he finds himself in the box surrounded by the scattered contents of looted bank safe deposit boxes.

As Pardo waits to be rescued, he happens to catch sight of a discarded stack of papers which hold details indicating that his daughter’s death may not have been an accident after all.

The police step into the bank robbery, and while a certain amount of suspicion falls onto Pardo, he’s mainly considered an innocent pawn. Curiously, Pardo doesn’t hand over the papers–the contents of Box 507 to the police, and at this point, the film segues into the investigation of yet another crime–what exactly happened to Maria Pardo.

Meanwhile the owner of the box’s contents, Rafael (Jose Coronado) and his live-in punching bag, vodka-soaked ex-bar dancer Monica (Goya Toledo) come to the wrong conclusion that the bank robbers have stolen the papers they hid at the bank for safe-keeping. Rafael is a nasty piece of work, but then everything is relative, and even Rafael trembles in his psychotic mafiosa’s boss’s presence.

The film very competently juggles two parallel plot threads–there’s Pardo, the man who was initially a patsy who is emboldened by bleak circumstance and revenge to hunt down his daughter’s killers, and Rafael, who erroneously goes after the bank robbers for his missing papers. Inevitably (but not predictably) the two men–Pardo and Rafael are on an explosive collision course.

The plot capitalizes on the various levels of power wielded by the characters to introduce the idea of various levels of evil. While some characters obviously are sadistic and enjoy enacting revenge in hideous ways (creative kills but no close-ups), other characters are content with making business deals with the understanding that everyone has a price. The film (happily) has no high-tech gymnastics, and instead this is a revenge tale of an ordinary man who sets out to get even with the people who ruined his life.

From director Enrique Urbizu, Box 507 was filmed in the Costa Del Sol.

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Criminal Justice II (2009)

Well it had to happen. After getting some great entertainment from Criminal Justice I, I decided to watch Criminal Justice II even though some of the reviews weren’t quite as glowing. This is a 5-episode made-for-British television series released on a 2-DVD set.

Criminal Justice II begins with a prominent barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) nailing a murder conviction in court. With the case over, he meticulously stores his wig and gown, goes for a stress-releasing jog and then returns home to his family–wife Juliet (Maxine Peake) and 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). The film does an excellent job of setting up ambiguity through these initial scenes. Joe attempts to call his wife several times on his cell phone and then a very harried, flustered Juliet dashes in the house only to miss the call. She takes a speedy shower and then cleans up (or tries to) all evidence of this. Does Joe call to tell Juliet of his success or is something else sinister afoot? What is Juliet afraid of? What is she trying to cover up?

And then there’s the Miller house. It’s immaculate–blacks and whites like some sort of designer home from a magazine, but there’s also a sterility to it. This could be a lab for all the lifeless within these walls.

The evening ends with Joe stabbed and rushed off to the hospital while a bloodstained Juliet wanders the streets, eventually ending up at the emergency room too. She’s arrested and taken off for questioning. It looks like an easy conviction with no real doubt that Juliet was responsible for stabbing her husband. The big question is why?

Criminal Justice II is strongest in its depiction of the relationships between the characters involved in the case. There’s Anna Klein (Zoe Telford), the defending barrister who is backed up by Juliet’s intelligent, sympathetic, savvy, solicitor, Jackie Woolf (Sophie Okonedo). Detective Chief Inspector Faber (Denis Lawson) finds himself troubled about the case–in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Juliet, and married detectives Chris and Flo Sexton (Steven MacKintosh and Kate Hardie) find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide as the case stretches out. Then there’s Ella who is left with no parents, but she does have a godfather Saul (Eddie Marsan) whose idolisation of Joe is a bit unhealthy. Dedicated social worker, Norma (Nadine Marshall) frequently oversteps her bounds and is accused of being “too involved,” as she becomes bound up in Ella’s fate.

Criminal Justice II, while ostensibly a police case, is much more about the muddy morality surrounding the crime, and it’s an emotional issue that ripples out to everyone involved and creates strong feelings on all sides of the fence. Juliet used to be an outgoing, happy person, but now she’s a neurotic, pill-popping mess. Was Joe a devoted, caring husband, or was he a control freak who robbed Juliet of her identity?

Criminal Justice II is at its weakest in the case itself. As the court date approaches, no one has asked Juliet WHY she did what she did, and then it seems to suddenly occur to Klein and Woolf that there’s no “story” for the courtroom. At that point, the pressure builds, but it seems a little forced when the story eventually trickles out as part of the courtroom drama. It’s all so well-acted and well-cast, however, that it’s still very entertaining in spite of its flaws. Some moments carry a  powerful resonance. Juliet, at one point, for example, expresses the opinion that she wishes that Joe had hit her as physical violence would have been irrefutable proof that he was an abuser while mental abuse is so much more elusive, difficult to prove, and hard to understand.


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Sultanes del Sur (2007)

Love, loyalty and compassion are for the weak.”

With every heist film, you know there’s a moment when something is going to go wrong. With a techno-heist, a film in which high-tech knowledge is essential to the robbery, the possibilities of exactly when and where things will go wrong are endless. But if the heist itself goes smoothly, then the viewer knows that the deal is going to go belly-up sometime between the robbery and the divvying up of the loot.  Perhaps it will be a double-cross. Perhaps it will be some tiny detail, but something somewhere along the way will go wrong. The question is…will the operation be recoverable?

Sultanes del Sur (Sultans of the South) is a riveting Mexican heist film that starts with a smoothly run bank robbery. The gang leader, Leo (Jordi Molla) begins the heist while the rest of the gang Monica Silvari (Ana de la Reguera), Carlos (Tony Dalton who also wrote the script) and Leserio Dominguez (Silverio Palacios) take their positions. It’s all very well thought-out, very well run, and Leo, who’s just a mite too cocky, seems to have all the bases covered.

The heist goes smoothly and the next thing you know, the four thieves are on a plane to Argentina where they intend to change the 12 million dollars loot back into pesos. So far so good….

Leo is clearly in charge here, and it’s when the thieves get on the plane that things begin to seem not quite right. For a start, Leo is keeping a tight mouth about all the plans. Leo and his girl, Penelope Cruz looks-a-like, Monica fly first class while Carlos and Leserio fly coach. And then there’s history between Carlos and Monica, but now she’s Leo’s girl. But is she?

It’s in Argentina when things begin to go horribly wrong….

Sultanes del Sur has a couple of violent scenes–not too terrible but a couple of lingering close-ups I could have done without. There were also a few chase scenes and I am not a fan of this sort of filler, but the story kept me glued to the screen. Yes, the film follows the formula, but it wasn’t predictable. The gang members run into some truly evil characters and are out of their depth fast. This very effectively cut the lark aspect out of the caper and turned the film into something much darker.

A couple of words of some of the shots: in one scene, Leo, Carlos, Leserio and Monica face the hoods who are supposed to exchange the money. The camera then switches angles and it’s the same scene and same characters but from a different angle and a different shot. This was a great shot. Another excellent shot occurs as the plane takes off from Mexico.

The very last scenes in which “all” is revealed was the weakest point of the film as too much info was parlayed in a few quick flashbacks, but overall this was an entertaining crime film, suitably bleak, suitably dark, and once again, long may the Mexican Renaissance in cinema last.

From director Alejandro Lozano

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A Red Bear (2002)

“Sometimes if you love somebody, it’s best to stay away.”

I’ve watched several Argentinean crime films lately, and A Red Bear (Un Oso Rojo) is the best of the bunch. The film has a searing honesty, and while the plot could conceivably allow for sentimentality, the film and its characters wisely veer away from sentiment and instead focus on the harsh realities of poverty in a merciless world.

The film begins with one very short scene depicting home life for Oso (Julio Chavez), his attractive wife Natalia (Soledad Villamil) and their small child Alicia. It’s Alicia’s first birthday but Oso leaves the party behind. He commits a crime which goes horribly wrong, and the next thing you know, he’s in the slammer, and his marriage is over.

Then the film moves forward 7 years. Oso is released and he returns to his old haunts….

The plot elements of A Red Bear are very familiar. The film centres on the return of Oso and his desire to set things right–well the only ‘right’  he is capable of managing. He returns to a crime-riddled suburb of Buenos Aires to find his wife and daughter and also to collect the money owed by fellow crook, Turco (Rene Lavand). After 7  years, the wily Turco doesn’t want to hand over the loot, and he instead he wants Oso to join one last heist. 

The blurb on the DVD cover included some hogwash about Oso trying to stay out of trouble. This doesn’t happen–to get ‘on his feet,’ Oso on his first day out of prison, mugs an affluent-looking young man and leaves him blubbering and begging for mercy. It’s through violence and crime that we see Oso hauling himself up from being a homeless nobody to a man who wants what’s owed.

It’s easy to imagine someone getting out of prison and trying to pick up their life where they left it. Oso does just this. After reconnecting with Turco, Oso looks for his ex-wife, Natalia and his now eight-year-old child. Natalia is remarried to out-of-work labourer Sergio (Luis Machin), a man with a gambling habit. On top of this, Alicia is struggling with reading and she’s falling behind at school. While the teachers advise that Alicia read more books, there are no books in the family’s bare little home, and there’s no money to buy any. It doesn’t take too long for Oso to find out that the marriage has problems, and he is prepared to step in and hold everyone accountable for the responsibilities he left behind 7 years ago.

A Red Bear is an excellent character study that merges into crime–after all, crime is a large aspect of Oso’s life. Julio Chavez’s marvellously understated performance as Oso pulls these two distinctly different parts of this film together while maintaining an intriguing curious distance between Oso’s behaviour and his innermost thoughts. This distance is never breached–hence the film’s lack of sentimentality. It could conceivably be pathetically sad that Oso has his child’s name ‘Alicia’ tattooed on his arm, but it’s also possible to see this as Oso’s rather limited attempt at fatherhood and connecting with a child he will never know. Is the tattoo a heartfelt gesture or some emblem of ownership? The film plays with both possibilities.

It’s impossible to know just what Oso is thinking or what is motivating him, and so some of his actions come as a surprise–both to the viewer and to the other characters. There’s a point in the film when Oso appears to be putting himself in the position of judge and jury of those whose performance he finds less-than-satisfactory, but then there’s a moment when everything changes. A bitter acceptance and a sense of humiliation settles on Oso over the course of three scenes: a scene in which he’s humiliated in front of his daughter, a scene where his employer gives him a gentle warning about staying away from his daughter, and a third scene that takes place between Oso and his ex-wife. Oso seems to veer away from domestic vigilantism towards doing the best he can under the circumstances. Oso’s stoicism gives no clue to his thoughts, but his actions ultimately answer any unspoken questions. Crime sequences are excellently juxtaposed with Alicia singing the Argentinean national anthem and its refrain about the ‘throne of equality.’

From director Adrian Caetano

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Extasis (1996)

“Love and Need, I get them confused sometimes, don’t you?”

I always enjoy watching Javier Bardem on screen. Whether he’s a robotic psycho No Country For Old Men or the beleaguered telephone sex operator in Mouth to Mouth, he’s always interesting. Perhaps it’s because he looks brutish but really isn’t or perhaps it’s because he was an Almodovar star. No matter.

When I saw Extasis (aka Ecstasy)–an early Bardem film from director Mariano Barroso on netflix, well I knew I had to watch it. The fact that it also stars veteran Argentinean star Frederico Luppi made Extasis an even more attractive proposition. extasis

The film concerns three young friends: Ona (Leire Berrocal), Max (Daniel Guzman) and Rober (Javier Bardem). The three have a wildly impractical idea of opening a bar on the beach, and of course, the only thing inhibiting their plans for the Good Life is the lack of money. The three friends decide to solve this little problem by stealing from their families. Ona helps hold up her family’s shop, and Rober plans to rob an uncle, but Max is estranged from his wealthy play-director father, Daniel (Frederico Luppi).

A chain of events–which I am not going to detail–leads Rober to impersonate Max and then approach Daniel as his long-lost father.

Now the thing is that Daniel is phenomenally wealthy. I don’t mean just well-off, he’s rolling in dough. His home is loaded with antiques and valuables, but it goes beyond that. Daniel is also a celebrity, bedding a much younger actress, Lola (Silvia Bunt), and the star guest at swanky parties. Rober, posing as Max, discovers that being the son of a famous man opens doors to a life he never thought possible. There’s one scene when Daniel takes Rober to the jewelers and tells him to pick out anything he wants. Rober’s face lights up, and he stares at the window before selecting a watch. Rober looks like a kid at Xmas, and that means Daniel must be Santa. Once Rober is ensconced in the sumptuous home of his ‘father’ Daniel, he takes to the good life with gusto, and meanwhile Daniel, enjoying his son’s more unpleasant characteristics,  thinks his hunky new son is a chip off the old block. Which direction will Rober’s loyalties ultimately take? Such wealth and such a glittering life would be a seductive proposition for anyone. The question is: will Rober be seduced?

Extasis starts as a crime caper film but then very quickly morphs into a much more interesting film. While Ona and Max are prepared to rob their families to get the bankroll for their fantasy bar, Rober’s parents are noticeably absent. All we see is an uncle. Robbing the families has a practical goal (getting money), but it goes deeper than that. By robbing their families, Ona, and Max are declaring their loyalties to each other while they sever their blood ties. But what of Rober? He apparently doesn’t have parents to betray. Does this lack of immediate family make him more vulnerable to a generous new daddy?

Extasis for about 90% of the film is excellent drama, but the plot takes a dive once Max appears back on the scene. The ending could have taken so many directions, and unfortunately the script takes the worst direction, the one I had the hardest time believing. I had already had to ask myself if Daniel, who isn’t a particularly nice person, would have accepted an adult son (the real one or the pretend one) so easily. Would Daniel take on a son he’s ignored into his life? Well I accepted that Daniel does invite Rober into his life, but then the film strains credibility with the silly direction the plot takes towards the end of the film. Daniel is not an idiot, and there are times when he seems to be playing a double game, but the film unfortunately doesn’t explore this thread and takes the silly way out. Visually, the film includes some gorgeous scenes–in particular, there’s one scene at night with a car driving and the street lights are reflected in the rain. Gorgeous shot.

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Filed under Javier Bardem, Spain

Miami Blues (1990)

“The first thing they should have taught you in your hooker classes is you shouldn’t ask the client so many fucking personal questions.”

The film Miami Blues is based on the noir novel from Charles Willeford, and if you are at all familiar with Willeford then you know that this author has a legion of fans (including me) and–to put it mildly–his hardboiled books are a bit quirky. This quirkiness seeps through in the 1990 film Miami Blues, one of Willeford’s novels that features Miami detective Hoke Moseley.

Miami Blues begins with Fred Frenger Jr. (Alec Baldwin) taking a plane from San Francisco to Miami. This is a fresh start for Frenger, who calls himself Junior, and the fresh start involves stealing the identity, the ticket and the jacket of another passenger. Once Junior arrives in Miami, he creates a one-man crime spree beginning at the airport.

Along the way, he picks up simple-minded hooker, Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose professional name is Pepper. Although she attends Miami-Dade Community College, she sticks to Junior like Velcro. The two set up house in a warped Betty-Crocker-white-picket-fence fantasy, but of course, this middle-class lifestyle has to be funded by Junior’s continuing crime spree.

Most of the film’s fun comes from the character of Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward)–a Miami cop whose false teeth don’t fit properly, and that’s probably due to the fact that he was too cheap to go to a dentist and had these false choppers made by a police forensic lab. A game of cat and mouse ensues between Junior and Moseley, and somehow Susie gets in the middle. There are so many ironies here–Moseley basically lives in one room in a resident’s hotel. His life is pathetically bare, and here’s Junior with a much better lifestyle and a devoted little housewife to boot. The unspoken implication is that Junior has assets (namely Susie) that Hoke would give his right arm to possess, and while on some level Junior realizes he has to steal and murder to propagate this fabricated lifestyle, on another level he doesn’t truly appreciate what he has.

The three main characters in Miami Blues elevate this film out of the norm. They are all perverse–all atypical. But Hoke Moseley steals the film as he is meant to. If you enjoy this film, I also recommend The Woman Chaser–another adaptation of a wonderfully bizarre, peculiar Willeford novel.

From director George Armitage

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Blood and Wine (1996)


“The interesting thing about rich people is that they’re so cheap.”

There are some films that burn images on our brains, and Blood and Wine from director Bob Rafelson is one of those films. There’s a scene in the film when wine merchant Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson)–who’s really a pathetic loser–is whooping it up in a swanky motel with Cuban mistress, Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez). To Gabriela, who works as a maid for a revolting rich family, Alex is a great catch; he’s a business owner, has a nice home and drives a red convertible. So what if he’s married? Alex is so broke his wife Suzanne (Judy Davis) can’t even write a cheque at the supermarket. But in this scene, Alex orders room service–complete with champagne while Gabriela stalks around in red heels and black lace lingerie. This scene is perfect. Alex and Gabriela leave reality behind and indulge themselves for a few hours, pretending that this fabricated experience is ‘real.’

bloodBlood and Wine is a sadly underrated crime film, and it’s the tale of how a middle-aged man, pressured by debts and yoked to a wife, a mortgage, and bills dreams up the sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape his hum drum existence and run off into the sunset with his mistress.

When the film begins, the heist is already planned with the major players in place. The stinking rich Reese family are leaving their ostentatious mansion (an uncomfortable cross between a swap meet and a museum) and sailing off on their yacht leaving their Cuban maid to housesit. The plan is that Gabriela will let Alex and his partner Vic (Michael Caine) into the house so they can lift Mrs. Reese’s diamond necklace from the safe. Things go wrong with the theft  immediately, but when Alex’s home life interferes with his criminal plans, events take an explosive turn.

Blood and Wine works so well because of its strong characterizations. The heist is just a heist, but it’s the people who try to pull off the crime and the people who get mixed up in the fallout that make the film so interesting.

First there’s Alex’s marriage: when Suzanne first appears on the scene, she’s using a cane for a broken ankle. Alex and Suzanne are at each other’s throats in less than a minute, and when the recriminations begin, it isn’t pretty. Suzanne who doesn’t seem to deserve such a louse for a husband, but then the issue is raised of just how she got that broken ankle, and gradually the ugly history of their turbulent marriage is raised.

Then there’s Suzanne’s son Jason (Stephen Dorff) who’s grown up protective of his mother and who harbors a slowly stewing hatred of his stepdad.

Vic, Michael Caine plays Alex’s partner, and this casting was a great choice. At first Vic appears to be a laid-back bucolic character, but as the film develops, Vic’s true character is revealed: vicious and unpredictable, Vic grows increasingly impatient with the screw-ups and whatever (and whoever) gets in the way of his share of the loot.

As for Gabriela, well she’s a girl who looks out for the best opportunity–whoever that might be.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen Blood and Wine perhaps it’s time to see it: it’s a believable tale of greed and lust.

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Finney (1994)

 “The fact that your husband wants to become a christian isn’t in itself a sign of mental illness.”

Finney is a 5-hour, 6-episode made-for-British television film that follows the struggle for power between various crime families in the North of England.

finney2Finney begins with the brutal murder of the violent Finney family Patriarch and godfather of crime, Irish Tucker Finney (Clive Russell), and this brings prodigal son, jazz musician Stephen Finney (David Morrissey) back to Newcastle. Following the murder, the family gathers for the funeral followed by reading of the will. Tucker Finney, who was a cruel, harsh man in life, continues to run his family even after his death. He leaves almost his entire estate to daughter Lena (Melanie Hill), while to Finney, the eldest son, he leaves a run-down abandoned cinema. Youngest daughter Suzie (Angela Lonsdale) inherits one of the family’s legitimate business concerns, a hotel, and the explosively unpredictable youngest son, Tom (Andy Serkis) is cut out of the will.

Stephen Finney, considered to be the only sensible member of the family by the local constabulary, left Newcastle and his wife and two children many years earlier. Since then, he’s pursued a career in jazz, and he’s hardly successful. When he learns of his inheritance, he decides to convert the ramshackle building into a jazz club, and he enlists the support of his ex-wife, Carol (Pooky Quesnel) to help. Gathering friends and jazz players, Finney sees the jazz club as a way to repair his life, so he sets to work on the restoration. But there’s a slight problem; the building is considered squarely in the territory of rival gang, the Simpson family, headed by Bobo (John Woodvine) and Bobo Jr. (Christopher Fairbank).

While the first episode set the scene for the rest of the drama, and was therefore a bit slow, Finney becomes increasingly more intense as the episodes unfold. The story follows Lena’s efforts to track down and kill her father’s murderer while establishing herself as her father’s successor. Since the area’s criminals are used to being led by a man, Lena has to establish herself as every bit as brutal and fearsome as her father–not an easy task. Meanwhile Tom spirals out of control, and Stephen Finney, despite his best efforts to remain separate from the taint of crime, becomes involved in the family business through a turf war as loyalties clash with his moral code.

Well acted, and well-plotted, if you are into British crime dramas, then Finney is for you. Nothing too brutal, this is more about character against the backdrop of British crime. Some of the flashbacks are repetitive and drag on a bit, but there’s a marvelous sequence in the ghost train at a local fairground. Solid entertainment for fans of British television. From director David Hayman.

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Not For Or Against (2002)


“When you choose a path, you go all the way.”

I’ve enjoyed a couple of films from director Cedric Klapisch–When the Cat’s Away and Un Air de Famille. Klapisch’s saccharine, fluff piece L’Auberge Espagnole, however, was a huge disappointment, so I was happy to find a darker film–even with its faults–in Not For Or Against (Ni Pour, Ni Contraire, Bien au Contraire).

Set mostly in Paris, Not For or Against is ultimately a crime caper film with psychological implications. The film doesn’t explore questions such as why a seemingly respectable, working class girl dives into a life of crime with gusto–although enough hints are dropped along the way to make this film a much better than average crime yarn. The film’s protagonist (and its most fascinating character) is Cathy (Marie Gillian)–a young struggling camerawoman living in Paris when her life abruptly changes one day. But does her life change for the better or for the worse?

Cathy freelances with her camera and one day she’s sent on a job where she meets a beautiful call girl. The hooker asks Cathy if she’d like to make a quick wad of cash, Cathy accepts and find herself meeting Jean (Vincent Elbaz). He takes a brief look at her and then she’s on her way to a life of crime, joining a band of 4 violent men–robbing and beating their way to a fortune.

Cathy has the sort of scrubbed-clean look that belies her behaviour. She’s in complete contrast to the hookers and dancers who parade through the scenes half-dressed. Cathy downplays her body by dressing in practical clothing, and while she certainly has the type of looks she could exploit, she doesn’t. Perhaps this is why Jean underestimates her, and while he’s obviously used to women using clothing (or the lack of it) as part of the sirens’ call, Cathy’s message seems to be decidedly nonsexual as she doesn’t try any of the old tricks to get his attention.

For about the first two-thirds of the film, I was riveted to the screen. Jean describes Cathy as a “vanilla chick” referencing her race but also her seeming blandness. But Cathy is far from bland or ordinary, and her actions in the first crime prove that (and win the admiration of the seasoned hoods).

The gang members have good times and bad times, but the final third of the film devolves into a typical caper, and this is where the film began to lose my interest. Cathy and her relationship with Jean are the two most fascinating aspects of the film, but neither is explored in any depth. Cathy’s relationship with Jean is undefined. That’s what makes it so intriguing–at first there seems to be a sexual energy between the two, but is Jean leading Cathy on? Or is it the other way around? At one point in the film, Jean tries to provoke a jealous reaction in Cathy. Jean seems simultaneously disappointed and disturbed by Cathy’s reaction.

While I think it works to avoid defining the exact dimensions of Jean and Cathy’s relationship, it’s a serious fault in the plot to not explore Cathy’s inner thoughts. There’s a moment in the film when Jean presents Cathy with an alternative and she thinks, “I figured the path marked evil was the better [one],” but after that insight, Cathy’s thoughts remain largely unexplored. What makes her tick remains a frustrating mystery–apart from the odd moments in her Paris apartment and scenes of her in her humble provincial home. To Cathy, crime represents a way out of her boring life, but exactly how much she calculates, playing a role to get what she wants are issues ignored by the plot. The fallout from the crime caper would seem to hint that what happens to Cathy is pure accident, but the last scene belies that.

Ultimately Not For or Against remains a fairly standard caper film with just the slightly unusual element of the bourgeois, seemingly respectable ‘good’ girl going off the rails. By focusing on the elaborate caper rather than the psychological aspects of the plot, and by ignoring insight in Cathy’s psyche, the film loses a chance to rise above its plot and it becomes more ordinary and a lot less interesting.

In French with subtitles.

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