Now that Ryan Gosling has moved on from projects like “Only God Forgives” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Matthias Schoenaerts has emerged as the cinematic ideal of fractured masculinity. Physically imposing but emotionally scarred, his characters — whether in “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone,” or “Disorder” — bring depth and dimension to the strong, silent type. He continues that streak in David Oelhoffen’s “Close Enemies,” which calls on the actor to once again portray a hardened criminal at his most vulnerable — and not much else that you haven’t already seen him do.
This is one of those crime dramas you know won’t end well, especially after the early reveal that Manu’s (Schoenaerts) close friend Irmane (Adel Bencherif) is acting as an informant for narcotics officer Driss (Reda Kateb). Having grown up in the same rough-and-tumble neighborhood as the two of them, the detective’s loyalties are divided between the letter of the law and the spirit of his upbringing — Manu and Irmane are the good-people-doing-bad-things type of criminals so often found in films of this kind, of course, and so our own loyalties are never in question.
A would-be drug deal goes as wrong as possible not long after, leaving Manu to pick up the pieces even as those closest to him begin to doubt his own intentions. Schoenaerts excels at posturing and putting on airs, projecting a tough-guy exterior so that no one will see — or take advantage of — the pain he’s in from one moment to the next. Manu never imagined any other life for himself, and there’s a kind of fatalism to the way he goes through the motions; it’s solid character work, even if it doesn’t make for an especially fresh or dynamic viewing experience.
Kateb, so excellent alongside Viggo Mortensen in Oelhoffen’s “Far From Men,” is the kind of actor who constantly reminds you of the power of an expressive face. With the most soulful eyes this side of Forest Whitaker, he infuses every small moment with a strain of melancholy that goes a long way toward making “Close Enemies” more than just another gritty crime drama that pits two brothers from another mother against each other. Ultimately, though, he and his co-star are limited by the material.
Oelhoffen exerts precise control over that material throughout, which would be more impressive were it not so familiar. “Close Enemies” traffics in the same sliding morality as too many films to mention, and though it’s exceedingly well made — special credit to cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, whose you-are-there camerawork makes the experience immersive throughout — it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. That’s a shame, as the director’s last collaboration with Kateb was so appealing in its barebones modesty: “Far From Men” proved that Oelhoffen is a thoughtful helmer who approaches violent, conflicted characters with sensitivity and nuance. “Close Enemies” does the same, but doesn’t feel like the step up it’s clearly meant to be.
Which isn’t to say that it’s without its moments. An early eruption of violence is arresting in both framing and execution, with bullets coming through the window of a car with such out-of-nowhere suddenness that your heart may skip a beat, and Schoenaerts and Kateb explore their characters’ strained relationship in a way that will leave you wanting more. “We’re from the same neighborhood,” Driss tells another cop when asked about Manu. “That doesn’t make us friends.” It’s a crucial difference, and “Close Enemies” is at its best when showing us just how thin a line it is.
“Close Enemies” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.