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Ex-cons and cons 

A brilliant Belgian drama and an above-average Hollywood con-artist flick open Friday

Olivier, the main character in an extraordinary film called The Son by Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is a stolid plug of a man. With his beefy frame, balding pate, jowly face and eyes shielded by thick glasses, the middle-aged vocational instructor has an almost archetypal nondescriptness. If you passed him in the aisles of a Home Depot, you wouldn't look twice, for the simple reason that there are probably a half-dozen guys nearby that look just like him.

Yet Olivier (played by Olivier Gourmet) rivets our attention from the first moment we see him in The Son, largely because of how he is filmed. The Dardenne brothers' handheld camera frames him closely and follows him with the jittery tenacity of an over-caffeinated bloodhound. Whether he's stoically guiding the boys in his carpentry class or doing solitary sit-ups in his apartment, Olivier dominates the visual field. The film's fluid intimacy and frequent jump-cuts provide a steady, rapid-fire, documentary-like chronicle of his smallest movements.

There's something unusual about this close observation of a character who appears wholly absorbed in the minutiae of his life and, thus, unemotional: The camera often peers at him from behind. Not directly behind, but from a close, roughly three-quarters rear view. The effect of such an unorthodox angle is to keep us from looking either into Olivier's eyes or at what he is looking at. Rather, we are obliged to regard him in a way that emphasizes the sheer physicality of his being and movement, even as it, more subtly, also poses his flux-filled surroundings as the projections of an unstill mind.

The Dardennes, who evolved their distinctive style in their previous features La Promesse and Rosetta, have an uncommon willingness to focus on nominally unexceptional people living on the bottom rungs of Europe's economic ladder. Yet their visual hyper-realism is only half of what converts humdrum subjects into absorbing cinema. The other half is their way with meaning.

That element begins to reveal itself in The Son when a new student shows up at Olivier's school. A skinny, sallow blond 16-year-old who wants to study carpentry, Francis (Morgan Marinne) is as expressionless and nondescript in his way as Olivier is in his. Yet his appearance sends the older man into a furtive frenzy.

After checking Francis' records in the school office, Olivier visits his ex-wife, Magali (Isabelle Soupart), who's starting again with a new partner. The teacher describes the new student, and says that he's thinking of teaching him. Magali seems stunned almost to nausea by this news. Staring incredulously at Olivier, she blurts out, "He killed our son."

This is where the story proper of The Son--a film in which character and mood count far more than standard story mechanics--begins. I don't want to describe more of the narrative, because the movie's moment-to-moment revelations, which are as engrossing as they are ultimately satisfying, deserve to be encountered without foreknowledge or preconception. Yet, as regards the film's way with meaning, what's most crucial has already been revealed.

Consider the title. "The son" refers to Olivier's dead child, yet this is only one of its meanings. Because Francis, a needy and forlorn refugee from five years in a reformatory, is another son to be considered. And when you have a movie called The Son that concerns a carpenter, another Son is inevitably implied.

That discrete third meaning, incidentally, is cleverly admitted by the film's poster, which contains an image of Francis carrying a large plank over his shoulder--very much Stations-of-the-Cross style--surmounted by a critic's blurb proclaiming "Miraculous!"

The film's Christian resonances, however, reflect a pedigree that is perhaps less strictly religious than searchingly cinematic. The Dardennes arrived at a time when the European art film is in a prolonged crisis of meaning, and their reaction has been to look back to the great examples of the past, especially Italian Neorealism and the films of Robert Bresson. In their two previous films, the influence of Neorealism--with its sometimes problematic mix of Christian humanism and sentimental leftism--was more pronounced. In The Son, it is the serene Catholic austerity of Bresson that dominates.

"Bresson's world," the critic David Thomson wrote, "is one of faces, hands, detached views of human activity. They surpass beauty, in both intention and effect, and stress necessity." The same can be said of The Son, which, its kinetic camerawork notwithstanding, evidences a very Bressonian simplicity and concentration, and a subtly concrete use of sound (minus any music whatsoever). But surely the film's most powerful evocation of Bresson lies in its aura of Christian contemplation.

Such Bresson masterpieces as Pickpocket, Mouchette and Au Hasard, Balthasar are neither doctrinaire nor strictly allegorical. Their religious content, so to speak, always more oblique than direct, belongs to their subjects and, especially, a point of view that is unmistakably spiritual in its understanding of human nature (and even animal nature, in the case of Balthasar).

So it is with The Son. The grand themes it treats--sin, guilt, the possibilities of mercy and redemption--are rigorously confined to an apparently mundane tale of a man and a boy working together in a vocational school, a story that would probably be treated by most newspaper editors as a second-rate human interest curiosity. What redeems this material, though, is not that the Dardennes supply it with a religious meaning but that they very carefully frame it so that we can supply our own.

As such recent movies as In the Bedroom, Moonlight Mile and The Son's Room indicate, a subject like parental grief over a child's death is generally delimited by conventions of genre (melodrama) and the conventional understandings of psychology and sociology. The Son doesn't reject or contradict any of these ordinary approaches. Rather, it effects a crucial expansion of meaning by opening a window toward spiritual interpretation.

In this, it is part of what seems to be a trend among some European directors to recover a connection to traditional modes of artistic meaning, an understandable reflex given the dead-end (or oxymoron) that cinematic postmodernism has turned out to be. Arguably the best two European films to have preceded The Son in Triangle theaters this year, Alexander Sukorov's Russian Ark and Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever, evidence a similar inclination to view contemporary realities through the lens of the Christian past--and are, I think, richer for it.

Still, a phrase like "the Christian past" is far too wafty to capture The Son's most immediate and striking fascinations. The movie's last scene, which I won't describe, sweeps us virtually unawares into a filmmaking tour de force of breathtaking originality and precision. More specifically still: The film's last five seconds (and the sudden edit that eclipses them) have a concentrated brilliance that surpasses almost anything in recent cinema. A brilliance that must indeed be seen to be believed.

A man is transformed by the unexpected appearance in his life of a teenager to whom he has a murky prior connection. Oddly, the dramatic kernel of The Son is essentially the same as that of Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men. You will not be surprised to learn, though, that the resemblance pretty much ends there. Where the European film is spare, philosophical and suggestive, its Hollywood counterpart is slick, clever and genre-bound.

As for that genre: Matchstick Men is a moody scam comedy in the tradition of The Grifters. Nicolas Cage, his face convulsing with tics and mannerisms, plays Roy, a hypochondriacal L.A. con man whose many phobias and allergies recurrently upset his criminal activities with his high-spirited young partner, Frank (Sam Rockwell). Sent to a shrink, Roy reveals that he formerly had a romantic relationship that, he soon learns, has left him with a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), who welcomes the chance to enter his life and become acquainted with the dad she never knew.

In fact, she welcomes it a little too eagerly. Though Roy quickly begins shedding his psychosomatic quirks in her presence, Angela discovers his line of work and asks to be taught how to run a con. Wanting to be a good dad in the normal sense, Roy is naturally torn. Does he work the kid into his life of crime, or risk alienating her by keeping her straight and honest?

For Scott, whose recent work has included the garishly overwrought imperialist fantasias Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, this film represents such a reduction in scale and hyperbole as almost to seem a finger exercise. Yet that very modesty accounts for the sundry low-key pleasures of Matchstick Men: the fluid pacing and flavorful SoCal atmospherics, the understated comic drollery and able performances of a well-cast ensemble (Rockwell and Lohman are especially engaging).

The movie also deserves compliments for its ending. Con-man movies are of course supposed to have tricky surprise endings, but Matchstick Men's emotional father-daughter duet is so successfully brought off that we tend to forget that. Thus, when Scott and company climactically pull the rug from under us, the surprise is as genuine as it is well-earned, so much so that we even welcome the return to genre's familiar landmarks. EndBlock

  • A brilliant Belgian drama and an above-average Hollywood con-artist flick open Friday

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