Tracing the morphing of a middle-class Belgian tax office worker into a ruthless and high-living drug lord, “Step by Step” is a tense French-lingo psychological crime thriller with style to spare. Clever writing, bold perfs and a provocative visual scheme announce Tehran-born, Dutch trained scribe Philippe Blasband, who wrote helmer Frederic Fonteyne’s “Une liaison pornographique” (“An Affair of Love” stateside) and here makes a memorable bow in narrative features, as nothing less than a Gallic David Mamet. Following its own step-by-step fest rollout in Montreal and Venice, pic will blow into theatrical deals worldwide, with ancillary success certain in Europe and entirely possible in the States.
Following the gangland-style offscreen slaughter of a known drug kingpin associate and his family at their upscale suburban home outside Brussels, chief suspect Hubert Verkamen (Benoit Verhaert) is hauled in for questioning by inspectors Denoote (Frederic Bodson) and Mercier (Serge Lariviere), under the watchful video eye of narcotics chief Bex (Yolande Moreau). Making short work of Mercier via humiliation and double-cross, the supremely confident and heavily bearded Verkamen — who’s been hauled in without success more than 30 times already by the cops — settles in for the main course.
Needling Denoote for his politics and Bex for being a woman, Verkamen is advised in these sequences by the dapper spirit of Mr. Chevalier (Philippe Noiret), a kind of ghostly godfather who urges the dealer to use what he’s learned against the cops. As the interrogators slowly play on Verkamen’s pride, his story begins to emerge in flashback.
Years before, as an earnest and clean-shaven revenue investigator, the civil servant walks in on his wife with another man. Shortly thereafter, while investigating a restaurant that serves as Chevalier’s laughingly amateurish money-laundering front, the two strike a deal: In exchange for Verkamen’s fearless business acumen, he becomes the older man’s protege in all things — from who you can trust in the drug biz (nobody) to the proper way to use cutlery and even driving lessons (Verkamen had always taken the bus).
Yet even amid this father-son relationship, alliances are tenuous at best, with Chevalier’s demise hastening a deadly game of cat-and-mouse involving Verkamen, his traitorous muscle Raoul (Patrick Hastert) and a trio of mildly eccentric killers.
Joining in the fun after the release of Verkamen, are the cops, who are tired of being played for fools.
Some clever wordplay and tough-guy cadences give the film a distinctive rhythm that transcends the language barrier. As in the best genre films of this ilk — including Claude Miller’s “Garde a Vu” (Under Suspicion) and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” — events and character motivations play as entirely probable while they’re occurring, even if they don’t bear close scrutiny upon further reflection: In the end, it’s difficult to imagine Verkamen being allowed such latitude during questioning, or that Bex and Denoote could be quite so gullible. Yet helmer Blasband is clearly more interested in a “Sopranos”-like examination of evil’s more mundane side, giving Verkamen’s steely-eyed rise to power and eventual undoing a frightening interior logic.
Save the always-dependable Noiret, the only cast member with anything resembling a high profile is Moreau, whose raft of credits include Madeleine the concierge in “Amelie.” Still, the rest of the cast gets a chance to show their chops, particularly Verhaert, seen but not heard in the Blasband-scripted 2000 cyber-spoof “Thomas in Love,” who is at once malevolent and appealing. Again, as does Mamet, Blasband has picked an ensemble of portraits in world-weariness that perfectly compliment each other.
Tech package is ultracool, with gamble of claustrophobic close-ups, single-source lighting, bleak industrial spaces and a gloomy yet crisp color palette paying admirable atmospheric dividends. The sound crew creates a white-noise wash of clanging urban clutter, goaded by Daan’s genre-savvy score, that goes a long way toward selling the milieu. Literal translation of the French-lingo title is “An Honest Tradesman,” Verkamen’s mantra of supposed respectability throughout.