A taut, emotionally involving thriller in which small-time crime engenders big-time stakes, “The Sandmen” is a sad and solid little movie whose tragic tale could easily feel derivative but never does. Fourth feature from Pierre Salvadori — previously known for offbeat comedies like “Wild Target” and “The Apprentices” — is anchored by fine character perfs in the service of an affecting, carefully constructed script. Telecast in March (as part of cultural web Arte’s “Left/Right” series) in a shorter version called “Detour,” this is the nicely tooled feature-length version.
Set in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, pic opens on a neighborhood cafe in flames. A man stumbles out, heads straight for a police station and announces, “I’ve come to say I killed a man.” Alain (Serge Riaboukine) begins his confession, which triggers the body of the film in flashback.
It all started a few months earlier when attractive, twentysomething Marie (Marina Golovine) entered Alain’s humble cafe, Le Detour, demanding the address of her brother, Antoine (Mathieu Demy), to whom she had been writing in care of Le Detour during her 14 months in prison. Brother and sister are extremely, perhaps incestuously, close, and Antoine deals hard drugs from his tiny apartment.
That night, the siblings get a scary visit from a blond man with a limp who demands money. He turns out to be Stephane (Guillaume Depardieu who, like Riaboukine, has appeared in all of helmer’s films), a waiter at the fancier cafe opposite Le Detour.
Neighborhood businessman Damien (Robert Castel) hopes to convince Alain to enlarge Le Detour, add a terrace and put in pinball machines to be overseen by his nephew, Xavier (Patrick Lizana). Modest, honest and self-sufficient, lumpy Alain hesitates.
While Damien pitches pricey remodeling, Xavier offers Antoine a chance to make some quick money, delivering a package of dope to some dealers in a hotel. Through a nicely handled chain of mini-events, Antoine decides to keep the hefty payoff for himself and tries to give Xavier and his two associates the slip. After a harrowing, keenly lensed chase on foot through nighttime streets, Antoine is critically injured. Eventually, Marie seeks revenge.
Infused with casual but constant urban tension and an emotional immediacy proper to melodrama, pic flows neatly between different characters and their clumsy or meticulous gestures. Golovine is a shade too beautiful and a little too textbook-intense in the midst of so much sordid activity, but other thesps are spot on. Michele Moretti, with a key monologue late in the proceedings, is excellent as the lady in charge of Le Detour’s fancier competitor.
Carefully chosen music, from reggae to a live perf in a club by composer Camille Baz Baz, contributes to the controlled portrait of unfortunate happenstance.