Bad timing may harm Emmanuel Finkiel’s potent “A Decent Man,” a hard-hitting drama about a working-class French ne’er-do-well who fingers an innocent Arab guy after being stabbed. Finkiel incisively builds his lead characters, subtly developing relationships along with alienation, resentment and racism to paint a picture of an average Joe whose weaknesses are distressingly commonplace. An act of violence at the pic’s end suddenly adds a major extratextual blow likely to leave many viewers (especially French viewers) reeling. Finkiel’s project has been gestating for more than a decade and thus has no actual connection with November’s tragic Paris events, yet the mind makes inevitable parallels, and predicting how “A Decent Man” will play at home would require an impossible act of clairvoyance.
To say that the film climaxes with targeted bloodshed isn’t much of a spoiler, though reviewers and commentators will be hard pressed to avoid further discussion without giving too much away. Finkiel’s high standing following his 1999 debut, “Voyages,” tends to be forgotten, since the unprolific helmer’s subsequent projects have mostly been smaller affairs. This could change now, and the film’s offshore chances are not insignificant, but will depend more than usual on critical attention. Its local release is scheduled for the end of February.
In Lille, unemployed Eddie (Nicolas Duvauchelle, furthering his rep as one of the strongest of France’s younger actors) is at a low ebb. Separated from wife Karine (Melanie Thierry), possessing few job prospects and drinking heavily, he lights up whenever he’s with his young son, Noam (Johann Soule), but then falls back into the doldrums once Noam goes back to his mother. One night Eddie picks up a woman at a bar, and while walking her home, he sees some kids stealing a car radio. Looking to impress his potential date, he tries to stop them; a bunch of hoods arrive, and in the tangle Eddie gets stabbed with a screwdriver.
Being the center of attention feels good: He’s called a hero, Karine comes to his bedside, and his son’s never been so enamored with his old man. When cops interview him about the incident, they lead him to think he may have heard the name “Ahmed” called out; consequently, all Ahmeds in the neighborhood are rounded up for a police lineup (a true story, according to Finkiel). Eddie identifies one Ahmed (Driss Ramdi), a guy whose face is vaguely familiar only because he was in a sales-job training video Eddie saw a few days back.
Eddie knows he’s seen Ahmed, though he isn’t really sure he’s the man who stabbed him. The cops are pressuring him for a definite identification, which Eddie can’t honestly deliver, yet life has begun to look up — he’s moved back in with Karine, a normal family life is redeveloping, and he’s been hired by the same Ikea-like store as his wife. The work, stocking warehouse shelves, is beneath him, but at least he’s earning a bit of money.
If all this precarious stability means an innocent guy gets jailed, isn’t it worth it? The script doesn’t spell out Eddie’s exact thoughts, but it doesn’t need to: Ahmed the Arab is in the job Eddie the Frenchman should have had. The police, as well as the magistrate, keep guiding him to affirm the accusation, laying bare their own knee-jerk racism. From these pieces one can easily imagine a whole profile, mentally grouping Eddie with the increasingly large swathe of voters on the far right: no more than basic education, a sense of alienation from the middle and upper classes, latent prejudice, frustration with change. And anger — lots of anger.
The pic’s original-language title translates as “I’m Not a Bastard,” and Finkiel scrupulously accords Eddie every reasonable concession. When he’s feeling valued, Eddie is a very pleasant character: affectionate with Karine, playful (childishly so) with Noam. Yet the moment he might be seen as weak, Eddie turns brutal and bullying. Eddie wants what he sees others have, whether it’s a nice car, a good job, or a better house. He and the camera are always looking around him, yet only the camera can see through things: Eddie can barely process his own reflection.
Duvauchelle’s intensity is perfectly calibrated, weaving together nervous tension with a tripwire pleasantness. Thin, a bit scruffy, and with a distrustful gaze that’s part outward animosity and part inward insecurity, the actor nails Eddie’s flawed sense of his own decency. He and Thierry are excellent together, her grounded warmth wounded but not destroyed by his tendency to violence; Karine is the only person in the whole film who maintains a basic integrity.
The overall package is crafted with studied naturalism, designed to feel like a docu-fiction hybrid in its carefully observational stance. Alexis Kavyrchine’s nonjudgmental lensing at times calls attention to itself by ensuring audiences are aware of how it views the world, whether through a scratched plastic window or at a discreet distance, outside looking in. Editing expertly modulates rhythm and builds up the pressure until the finale, shot with terrifying, matter-of-fact coolness.