After Thomas Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs erupted onto the scene and changed the face of serial killer thrillers forever (sorry, Manhunter), Hollywood has been under siege from uber-complicated, yet painfully flamboyant murder sprees that range from the classic (Se7en, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), to the popular (The Bone Collector), to the forgotten (Jennifer 8, The Snowman). But before you think that the realms of eccentric modus operandi, atmospheric small towns and dastardly conspiracies were solely the property of America, allow me to introduce you to a quietly bonkers, French psycho thriller from 2000 that takes everything the genre has to offer and puts a predictably stylish spin on them. Strap yourself in as director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) teams up favourites Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel and takes you on a staggeringly random ride down The Crimson Rivers.
A body turns up suspended off a cliff in the mountains of the small university town of Guernon in the French Alps and it doesn’t take a seasoned coroner to figure out that this was foul play. Bound naked in the foetal position, university librarian Remy Callois is missing his hands and eyes and is a mess of broken bones and deep gashes and the case is so extreme, famous Parisian Detective superintendent Pierre Niemans is sent to figure shit out. As he befriends glaciologist, Fanny Ferreira, Niemans also gets elbow deep in the towns odd history that once saw an inbreeding amongst the isolated university’s professors and now sees the local village’s children growing infirmed while the college babies are suspiciously healthy.
Quicker than you can say “creepy ass eugenics”, we hurtle over to meet detective inspector Max Kerkerian, an unorthodox cop who smokes dope on duty and gets into random kung-fu fights with skinheads when a simple bout of questioning goes south. Max is investigating the desecration of the grave of a girl who died in 1982 and the theft of her photos from the local school and before you know it, his simple case has snowballed into something that somehow involves neo-nazis, blind nuns and a man named Phillip Sertys who, wouldn’t you know it, has just been found frozen solid in a similar state to Callois in a tunnel under a glacier by a perturbed Niemans.
Inevitably these two guys meet and realise that they are investigating the same case from entirely different ends, but while the slightly starstruck Kerkerian wants to compare notes, but Niemans is a strictly work-alone kind of guy. Can these two, very different, alpha-males pool their talents in time to unravel this ridiculously convoluted mystery?
A hodge podge of ideas, concepts and tones that don’t always sync up smoothly, The Crimson Rivers is nevertheless a strangely endearing experience whose unpredictability makes up for the fact that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. This doesn’t seem to bother Kassovitz much however, who ploughs through the intricacies of the source novel in order to stage some fairly out there stuff that often doesn’t even feel like it’s from the same movie. The director takes us to some pretty extreme places – in some cases quite literally when Niemans takes a trip to a glacier to locate some truly bizarre evidence (sampling some frozen rainfall from the 70’s is hardly a fingerprint or a smoking gun) and instead find another body entombed in ice – and insanely atmospheric montages such as the opening titles placed over the camera trawling almost lovingly over a murdered corpse sit awkwardly next to some broad action sequences when Max gets into a fight with videogame sound effects played over the top. It shouldn’t actually work, but despite his obvious impatience with coherently spelling out the plot – Cassel has been quoted saying that Kassovitz amusingly cut out a lot of exposition decrying that stuff as “boring” – the director’s keen eye for detail puts nifty spins on well worn tropes like a foot chase between Max and the killer takes a finds its way onto a actual race track or Niemans having a deathly fear of canines.
Helping move the actual plot along immensely are the two leads who contain probably more charisma between them than most double acts on earth and it’s a legitimate joy to see them bounce of each other, giving minimum effort with maximum effect as Reno’s big time case cracker butts heads with Cassel’s equally unpredictable loose cannon.
To this day I’m still unsure how such a subtle story could spawn such a quietly chaotic movie that actually still holds together and it carries on as such all the way to when its enjoyably preposterous denouement is countered by an even more preposterous avalanche that conviently wipes the plot clean as a freshly scrubbed white board.
Some may find Kassovitz’s apparent disinterest with lining the t’s and dotting the i’s when it comes to straightening out the lines that connect dead girls, crazy nuns, evil twins, manipulated bloodlines, murder and a shit-ton of snow that would make any fan of swedish noir get their frost on.
As uneven as a cobbled street but as entertaining as if someone popped some phencyclidine into Agatha Christie’s afternoon cup of tea, The Crimson Rivers may not be the result of what you’d a tight script, but thanks to the director’s inability to sit still and the awesomeness of the super union of it’s two leads, the movie proves that anyone dumb enough to take on the team of Reno and Cassel must be nothing more than a silly cult.