Now here's an interesting pair of films.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct, reviewed here, is the first of two, which together make up the full story. Tomorrow I'll see Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, and I'll post a reaction shortly after.
As I understand it, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (but not Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1) is based on L'instinct de mort, the autobiography of Jacques Mesrine, written when the gangster/bank robber/kidnapper/killer was brought to justice after years of civil terrorism, finally captured and imprisoned in maximum security. Seen as such, the story is sold from Mesrine's memories, some of which are factual, but a few of which should be understood as personal literary license. He likes to take the historical outline and enhance it with myth, as if the truth of what he did wasn't corrupt enough in itself.
There's even a caption from the start which warns us of the "complexities" here; that it is grounded in reality but with elements of fable mixed in. Even in jail, Mesrine upgrades the mystery of his life, blending true history into His Story.
I haven't read the autobiography, but from what I've seen in the the film, Mesrine was a narcissist sociopath who took pride in his work -- especially in front of the press, which in the latter days of his career he saw quite often.
In his early days in the sixties, he tried to go straight, pull out -- he tried to get a job and get out from under mob mentality. These moments happened when he thought of his family, his kids, but at least once we clearly see he's just sick of being so vile.
The desire to drop the lifestyle doesn't last very long, however, which leads us to question whether he is intrinsically evil or just addicted to the rush and the money. He pulls off heist after heist, wanted on both sides of the Atlantic for a trail of blood and money, his fame growing nearly as fast as his head.
Mesrine is played by Vincent Cassel, most recently brought to U.S. attention as the driven, somewhat demented ballet director in Black Swan. Cassel is always best in these over-the-top roles where guns are a-firing and trails are a-blazing. From the ex-con with a new plan in Read My Lips to the driven insane boyfriend in Irréversible, from the diabolical grin of a devilish goat-herder in Sheitan to the menacing mobster-son of Eastern Promises, Cassel functions best when embodying characters oozing with excessive moral decay. (On the flip side, his worst role might have been playing a rather subdued cannibal in Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, which is still an interesting film regardless of his mostly unconvincing performance.)
The plot is secondary to the sociopath character, so I'm not going to dwell much on that. Think Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco or Public Enemies and you're very much in the right ballpark.
Though it's out on DVD in just a few weeks, I'm glad I caught the film in the theater. Cassel fills a screen with fury no matter how big the screen happens to be. He's larger than life here, in what may be his greatest performance -- this might be the one to remember him by. There's no American equivalent to Cassel, ever, but I'm glad I thought to mention Donnie Brasco and Public Enemies. Johnny Depp, though still too pretty to compare, is like a blood brother to Cassel in filling a multitude of roles. They might be the most mainstream actors in film who revel and relish in the most beguiling of cinematic opportunity.
The film, especially during an incredibly cool opening over the credits, makes use of a kind of split screen that, if I've seen something like it before, it's certainly been a long time. We see the same actions from several angles juxtaposed on the big screen. But as we watch more closely we come to realize that the actions actually aren't quite the same. Sure, the scenes have the same actors, and they're doing the same things, but the director chose to film the same scenes over and over again, never using the same take twice. It makes for a mesmerizing viewing experience, and rather thwarts time and dimension, thinking of Mesrine's choices ahead and the choices he's obviously already made. It was as dizzying and splintering as an opening credits can be, and though the rest of the film contains some intense, direct brutality, it rather riffs as a whole on these opening split moments.
Dizzying and splintering are good descriptors for Mesrine: Killer Instinct. We'll see how it wraps up tomorrow.