David Derks and Dave Foley

A powerfully bleak family drama that leaves its characters' offenses largely offscreen but lingers with agonizing, drawn-out deliberation on the consequences.

Seeing, hearing and speaking no evil comes all too easily to the tortured trio in “Three Monkeys,” a powerfully bleak family drama that leaves its characters’ offenses largely offscreen but lingers with agonizing, drawn-out deliberation on the consequences. Bad faith, simmering resentment, adultery and murder all figure into Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s darkly burnished fifth feature, giving it a stronger narrative undertow than his previous Cannes competition entries, “Distant” and “Climates.” But gripping as the film often is, its unrelenting doom and gloom offers fewer lasting rewards, making it unlikely to draw sizable arthouse crowds beyond the Turkish helmer’s fanbase.

Opening shot of aging Turkish politician Servet (Ercan Kesal), falling asleep at the wheel as he drives through the woods at night, not only foreshadows the monochrome misery to come but also establishes the film’s dramatic m.o. Rather than showing the subsequent collision, Ceylan cuts to a forest clearing where a pedestrian lies dead in the background and Servet, trembling with fear in the foreground, determines to hide his guilt.

Emphasis on aftermath rather than action is significant: The one who ends up paying for Servet’s crime is his longtime personal driver, Eyup (Yavuz Bingol), who takes the rap after Servet’s promise of a hefty lump sum upon his release. As Eyup’s prison term drags on for months, his beautiful wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and aimless teenage son Ismail (Ahmet Rifat Sungar) grow impatient and restless in their seaside flat, prompting Hacer to ask Servet for an advance.

Servet, who’s just lost an important election, makes good on his promise, though the indelicate nature of his agreement with Hacer — again, made clear to the audience with no explicit imagery — can’t be kept hidden for long from Ismail. The troubled youth, in turn, has a hard time concealing the truth from Eyup when the latter re-enters the picture, creating a pressure-cooker scenario that Ceylan plays out for maximum emotional tension at an achingly measured tempo.

Though he eventually serves up an entire potboiler’s worth of past tragedies and festering secrets, Ceylan takes a characteristically oblique approach. Screenplay (credited to the helmer, his wife Ebru Ceylan and Ercan Kesal) dwells mainly on the characters’ inability to communicate — the film offers lots of awkward silences and angsty brooding, but precious little eye contact — making the inevitable angry outbursts all the more affecting.

Primary thesps are superbly convincing as a dysfunctional unit. Absent for most of the first half, Bingol dominates the second with his volatile fits of temper. Aslan is both maddening and sympathetic as the frustrated seductress, and handsome Sungar has heartbreaking moments as a son who, it’s suggested, has borne more than his fair share of the emotional burdens.

While Servet’s selfish actions impel the drama forward, the political content and latent class tensions never distract from the core dynamic. But “Three Monkeys” reaches the point of diminishing returns in its final reels, as the tale relaxes its vise-like grip and its machinations begin to seem transparent and overdetermined in retrospect. And aside from a darkly comic cell-phone ringtone that steals every scene it’s in, the wry humor that made “Distant” so memorable is mostly absent here.

Reteaming with “Climates” d.p. Gokhan Tiryaki, Ceylan again offers beautifully composed HD images of exceptional depth and texture. In keeping with the angst-ridden tenor, however, his color palette seems deliberately murkier and more constrained than usual, occasionally drifting past sepia into the realms of puke-green. In some ways, the extraordinarily crisp and detailed soundscape is even more impressive, making audible the scrape of tires on gravel and the unyielding rhythms of the sea.

Three Monkeys

Turkey-France-Italy

Production

A Pyramide Distribution (in France) release of a Zeynofilm, NBC Film (Turkey)/Pyramide Prods. (France)/Bim Distribuzione (Italy) production, in association with Imaj, with the participation of Ministere de la Culture et du Tourisme Turc, Eurimages, CNC. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Zeynep Ozbatur. Co-producers, Fabienne Vonier, Valerio de Paolis, Cemal Noyan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Screenplay, Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Gokhan Tiryaki; editors, Ayhan Ergursel, Bora Goksingol, Nuri Bilge Ceylan; art director, Ebru Ceylan; sound (Dolby Digital), Olivier Goinard; sound editor, Umut Senyol; assistant director, Ayla Karli Tezgoren. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2008. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Ercan Kesal. (Turkish dialogue)

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