It’s so rare these days to see a movie demonstrate simple, quiet proficiency that critics can sometimes respond to that quality with a little too much gratitude. Jacques Audiard’s epic prison drama A Prophet, for example, which won the Grand Jury Prize (essentially second place) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, has been hailed in many quarters as a near-masterpiece, even though it does little more than recycle—admittedly with great skill, but rarely with invention or imagination—the gritty, self-actualizing journey of practically every convict who’s ever been front and center on film, TV or stage. From the moment that we’re introduced to Malik El Djebena, played with an impressive mix of vulnerability and flint by newcomer Tahar Rahim, it’s obvious that his six-year stretch in le joint will see him gradually metamorphose from terrified new fish to intimidating kingpin. The only real question is what percentage of his soul he’ll surrender along the way.
Audiard’s previous films include Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and he continues to be France’s best approximation of a badass genre stylist; an early, exacting sequence, in which Malik, who’s chosen to keep to himself rather than stick close to his fellow Muslims, is tapped by the Corsican mob to befriend, seduce and murder a fellow inmate, achieves heights of queasy tension unusual even for brutal prison movies. At bottom, though, this is still an exceedingly familiar tale that over the course of two and a half hours takes on a plodding, somewhat mechanical rhythm, as we watch Malik quietly manipulate a situation to his long-term advantage over and over again. That Malik is an Arab allied with Corsicans (who treat him as a pet at their most welcoming) gives A Prophet some superficial sociopolitical currency, but Audiard clearly favors a more primitive and personal species of empowerment. After a while, it’s just dominoes falling.