Redolent of “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos” with a soupçon of “Animal Kingdom” and a welcome dose of black humor, “The Line” is an entertaining, fast-paced crime thriller set in the lawless borderlands of the Slovak Republic and Ukraine prior to Slovakia’s accession to the European Union in 2007. Stories abound about criminal clans and a mob kingpin’s struggle to balance nuclear family with The Family. But “The Line” leaps to the top of its genre class with muscular direction from Slovak helmer Peter Bebjak (“Apricot Island”); a genre-savvy screenplay by Peter Balko; unusual locations spectacularly captured; a propulsive score; and impressive performances, in particular, a go-for-broke, extremely physical turn from Slovak theater and TV star Tomáš Maštalír as the lead. Definitely a commercial prospect in its co-production countries, “The Line” could also pique niche business outside the region while placing Bebjak, Balko and Maštalír on international producers’ radar.
The film’s title refers not only to changing physical boundaries — when Slovakia becomes part of the Schengen Area, its frontier with Ukraine ostensibly will be the most secure of the EU’s external borders and fall under multiple levels of scrutiny — but also to the moral lines that the chief Slovak protagonist, Adam (Maštalír), feels he must not cross in his efforts to keep his home and business lives separate. As the story begins, buff, imposing Adam, the head of a small cigarette-smuggling empire, faces challenges on both fronts. His sexy eldest daughter Lucia (Kristiná Konátová) insists on marrying Ivor (Oleksandr Piskunov), the gentle, semi-clueless nephew of Adam’s trusted lieutenant Jona (Eugen Libezňuk), a Ukrainian, against Adam’s wishes. Meanwhile, some of Adam’s gang have been co-opted by their cross-border supplier, the ruthless Ukrainian gangster Krull (Stanislav Boklan), to smuggle narcotics, a cargo Adam steadfastly refuses to transport.
While playing with additional connotations of the title, Balko’s smart, twisty screenplay continually brings more characters and complications into the mix. Jona’s son is suffering in a Ukrainian prison, serving a four-year sentence for having participated in a protest rally against the government, and Jona needs big money in order to free him. The local police chief (veteran thesp Andy Hryc, the father of producer Wanda Adamík-Hrycová), foresees the eventual end to his turn-a-blind-eye payoffs and starts to pit Krull and Adam against one another to up the ante. And when a big operation goes wrong during Lucia and Ivor’s raucous engagement party, Adam’s mother Anna (Emília Vášáryová, the grande dame of the Slovak cinema) shows what she’s made of. Stir in a truckload of illegal Afghan immigrants running through the forested “green border” during an unexpected police raid, a gypsy family with an eye for opportunity, a ravine where bodies are suspended in the watery depths and a strategically located quarry, and you begin to get an idea of the film’s kinetic, hyper-real style.
After honing his helming skills on TV crime dramas and three prior features, director Bejbak displays a gleeful mastery of genre conventions and the building of suspense. His long experience as an actor (he essayed a crucial character in Jan Hrebejk’s 2016 Karlovy Vary competitor “The Teacher”) clearly shows in the way his cast makes even the bit parts more than mere stereotype. Some, including Maštalír and Hryc, even get to demonstrate their musical chops. Also praiseworthy is the way that Bejbak manages to interject notes of surrealism and black humor into the proceedings without upsetting the overall tone. A cleverly visualized, dialogue-free scene of Adam trying to recover a load of stolen cigarettes manages to be at once humorous and heart-rending.
Technical credits are all top-notch, with special mention due to Martin Žiaran’s energetic lensing and Marek Královský’s pacey cutting that neatly juggles multiple storylines. Slavo Solovic’s high-octane, Balkan-inflected score both propels and comments on the action.