A jet-black social comedy marbled with delectably handled close calls, “The Ax” puts the merciless world of downsizing, outsourcing and other capitalist trends on the chopping block. Winningly played tale centers on a husband and father who resorts to drastic measures after losing his job. Pic generates guilty laughter as the central character’s entrepreneurial response to unemployment takes increasingly sardonic turns. Top-notch transposition of Donald Westlake’s Yank universe to a Franco-Belgian setting conveys an underlying message as unsettling as it is pertinent. Properly handled, this sharply helmed Costa-Gavras pic could travel well.
Forty-one year old Bruno Davert (Jose Garcia) appears to be an incompetent hit man. But, as Bruno records a private confession into a dictating device, it becomes clear that killing people is a temporary adjunct to his professional life.
Highly specialized chemist Bruno was a valued and productive top-level exec at a French paper mill for 15 years. But the firm fired him and 600 other employees in order to increase profits by moving operations to a country with cheaper labor.
Despite his qualifications, two and a half years later he was still unemployed. As flashbacks move closer to the present and money gets tighter, former breadwinner’s days are spent sending out resumes and watching his loving wife Marlene (Karin Viard) take part-time jobs. Bruno’s teen son and daughter mope over the family’s cancelled cable TV and Internet services.
Bruno believes his rightful place is at leading paper manufacturer Arcadia, run by Raymond Machefer (Olivier Gourmet). Concerned that other candidates aspire to the same post, Bruno decides he’ll simply have to figure out who they are — and kill them.
Narrative, full of twists and turns, makes it easy to root for Bruno although we know we shouldn’t. Clever script indicts the consequences of increasingly accepted business practices which, it’s worth noting, remain far more common in the U.S. than they are (for the time being) in Western Europe.
Pic is laugh-out-loud funny as Bruno juggles murder, parenting, couples counseling and an unnerving number of brushes with the law.
Well-cast supporting players each add a layer of insight and compassion, with special praise for Yvon Back and Ulrich Tukur as skilled businessmen axed in their respective primes.
Garcia, a versatile thesp best known for outsized comic roles, is aces in a tightly controlled and nuanced perf characterized by near-flawless timing. Stand-out scenes include a job interview with a no-nonsense female interviewer (Olga Grumberg) and a dinner during which Bruno considers coming clean to his family only to be influenced by something that happens to be on TV during the meal.
Pic’s greatest resonance may be in its study of rationalization. Bruno is anything but a nutjob; methodical yet bumbling, unfortunate yet awfully lucky, his approach to recovering his status makes sense the same way putting shareholders ahead of employees makes sense.
Pic achieves the rhythm and tone that were so conspicuously lacking in helmer’s “Mad City,” a more plausible yet less convincing look at a man driven to desperate acts by heartless social circumstances.
Pic does a bang-up job of portraying amoral behavior on both a commercial and personal scale without ever endorsing it. Ruthless modern competitors who mistakenly admire Sammy Glick and Gordon Gekko will find a more contemporary — and equally inappropriate — role model in Davert.