Reportedly the first genre movie of its sort ever produced in the United Arab Emirates, “Rattle the Cage” is a world-class thriller. Recalling — but, to its considerable credit, not slavishly imitating — neo-noirs of the 1980s (a decade in which, for practical as well as reverential reasons, the story is set) and such classic down-and-dirty noirs as “D.O.A.” and “Detour,” pic should travel far and wide on the global fest circuit. It could also play respectably on a variety of international platforms with the aid of smart marketing. And yes, to answer the obvious question, this is low-hanging-fruit ripe for an Americanized remake.
Working from a watertight scenario by the husband-and-wife team of Lane and Ruckus Skye, first-time feature director Majid Al Ansari wastes little time before he starts tightening the screws and amping the suspense during the opening scenes. Talal (Saleh Bakri), a recovering alcoholic, wakes up after what may — but, on the other hand, may not — have been a night of drinking, fighting and general backsliding, and finds himself inside a cell in a small-town police station. A bad situation devolves into something unimaginably worse when a smooth-talking, purposefully ingratiating police officer who identifies himself as Dabaan (Ali Suliman) arrives on the scene — and cold-bloodedly kills the only cop on duty at the station.
There is a method to Dabaan’s madness, but it is revealed only gradually in the course of an extended cat-and-mouse game, during which the strutting psycho repeatedly finds insidiously clever ways to keep Talal from spilling the beans to others — including a corpulent, sweet-natured female deputy (Yasa) and Talal’s unsympathetic ex-wife (Ahd Kamel).
Dabaan, whose manic mood swings suggest a perverse cross-pollination of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from “Blue Velvet” and an early “Monty Python” era John Cleese, obviously enjoys every opportunity to verbally (and, on more than one occasion, physically) exert his power over the incarcerated Talal, a textbook example of the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Think Edmond O’Brien in “D.O.A.,” only more so.) But Talal proves to be as resourceful as he is desperate, so that “Rattle the Cage” adheres to the cardinal commandment of genre moviemaking: Thou shalt not provide a pay-off that doesn’t satisfyingly resolve the set-up.
Majid elicits first-rate performances across the board, with supporting players doing their fair share of heavy lifting. Yasa is especially engaging as the ambitious but easily charmed deputy. Viewers may find themselves, much to their surprise, genuinely fretful whenever her character is endangered.
Suliman’s scary-graceful physicality is by turns comical and unsettling, and often both simultaneously, and his shrewdly measured performance dominates the film. But Bakri generates sufficient rooting interest in his character to make “Rattle the Cage” engrossing from one scene to the next, and unexpectedly affecting in its final moments.
Production values are such that other filmmakers would do well to study “Rattle the Cage” for pointers on how to make a single-set drama enforce a relentless grip on audience attention.