A satisfying blend of crime drama and geopolitical think piece, Irish/British/German/Scandinavian co-production “The Front Line,” about a Congolese refugee in Dublin, sustains high levels of suspense while delivering an emotional wallop. Eriq Ebouaney’s impressive perf as the enigmatic hero and James Frain’s as the psychopathic villain rev up the tension. Helmer/scribe David Gleeson’s change-of-pace followup to his debut gay outsider comedy “Cowboys and Angels” cannot compete with a star-studded, racially charged cachet item like “Catch a Fire,” but, with critical support, this economic genre film with a potent social subtext could carve an arthouse niche.
Joe (Ebouaney, of “Lumumba” “Femme Fatale” and “Kingdom of Heaven”), a political refugee from the Congo whose body bears the barbed-wire marks of his trauma, has seemingly put his past behind him. Newly reunited with his wife and son, he enjoys his job as a security guard at a Dublin bank. The inbred suspicions of his immigration officer (Gerard McSorley) and the racist mutterings of the bank’s alcohol-inclined janitor appear unable to ruffle his hard-won equanimity.
But when a gang of murderous young goons, led by curly-haired sociopath Eddie (Frain), kidnaps his family in exchange for his help in robbing the bank, it awakens dormant demons in Joe.
Though the heist itself and Joe’s subtle subversion of it hardly rank historically as threats to such Hollywood heist/abduction classics as “Cry Terror!” or “Experiment in Terror,” Gleeson’s direction displays a spare grace and deft grasp of the essentials, creating a sense of narrowing concentration. No drawn-out, artificial milking of the suspense is deployed. Rather, tension mounts situationally in what feels like real time with a nervous economy that builds through simple plays of light and dark.
When the robbery ends in a stalemate and an arranged exchange of money and hostages is sabotaged by an angry skinhead, Joe mobilizes an entire underclass of African cab drivers, hairdressers and newspaper vendors to root out the gang, reluctantly calling in the heavy artillery via compatriot Erasmus (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), a crime kingpin who, like Joe, has experienced the horrors of the Congo civil war first hand.
“Front” fairly vibrates with a sense of the unknown. Ghost traces of the off-screen Congolese genocide are evoked in newsreels under the main credits and reprised in nightmare flashbacks.
That haunting past silently uncoils every time Joe exchanges glances with his wife (Fatou N’Diaye) or son (Bryan Eli Sebunya). It is the subtext in midnight dockside conversations between Joe and Erasmus, and the weight of it is strong enough to neutralize the sadistic threat of Eddie, who admiringly remarks to Joe “you’re crazier than I am.”
When Joe’s secret, elusively alluded to throughout the film, is finally revealed, for once it feels as shocking as its buildup warrants.
Thesping is superlative throughout. Sadly, recent history has supplied ample precedents for recountings of atrocities. But, when played off against an alternate Irish cityscape with its own dark corners and misplaced empowerments, the unimaginable assumes the wild coloration of a parallel universe.
Tech credits are ace, Volker Tittel’s crisp nocturnal lensing and Patrick Cassidy’s nuanced score particularly fine.