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Only at the end do we remember the beginning. Dheepan opens on a scene of a man setting fire to a pile of corpses. Almost an entire movie passes before the next significant act of bloodshed, but when it occurs, we understand how that first moment, the one we have almost forgotten, explains it all. In the interim, Dheepan, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, burns a little too slowly, but its climax is pure fireworks, and when the ending of a movie works, an overly languid pace and meandering plot are easier to forgive.
The man in question has no name. A former soldier in the Tamil Tigers, he assumes the moniker of a dead man, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), in order to flee Sri Lanka. His best chance for asylum is to play the family man, so he accepts a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a child Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to pose as his wife and daughter. Each of them has suffered deeply. We don’t know the details, but it’s clear from the mayhem of the opening scenes in India that life holds no purpose for them there. And so, like many immigrants before them, this makeshift family moves to Paris, where they hope to build a better life.
Writer/director Jacques Audiard uses lyrical interludes and visually arresting transitions to elevate material that might otherwise feel mundane. There are echoes of a universal immigrant experience through the narrow world Audiard depicts.The family moves into a dilapidated apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, where nearly the entire film takes place. Dheepan gets a job as caretaker of the complex, where he strikes up a tenuous detente with the neighborhood gang members. Yalini finds work cooking and cleaning for a man with a disability, while Illayaal struggles to fit in at a school where she barely speaks the language.
Each character goes about their day with quiet courage, but the indignities they suffer threaten to damage their fragile existence. Illayaal lashes out at her schoolmates who refuse her offerings of friendship. Dheepan grows weary of the barbs and slurs of the young, arrogant gang members. Perhaps most complicated is Yalini’s burgeoning friendship with the leader of the gang, who also happens to be the son of her aging employer. While it never threatens to become romance, it makes for a painful contrast to her affectionless relationship with Dheepan. His efforts to woo her and turn this fake family into a real one are heartbreaking.
Soon, other body parts are in danger: As these characters fight for dignity, a gang war is simmering in the background, and the meandering film builds to an action-packed climax. Audiard rarely draws any literal connections between the violence around Dheepan and the life he left behind, so when the two merge, it is both a thrilling climax and a tragic return to a lifestyle that Dheepan fought to escape.
In the end, Dheepan owes more to vigilante thrillers like Death Wish and even Taxi Driver than most immigrant dramas, and by mixing genres, he may seek to explain away certain types of immigrant violence. Some viewers may have a problem with that. It’s a provocative ending that will satisfy fans of onscreen bloodshed, disappoint those who came for a prestige immigrant drama, and inspire thought about where the two overlap. A great ending in search of a slightly better movie.
Opens Friday at Bethesda Row Cinema.