Movie review: "Dheepan" gives a gritty look into the eyes of a war refugee

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

French director Jacques Audiard first came to international prominence with 2009's "A Prophet," the story of a young Arab man whose time in a French prison leads him down the path of organized crime. It was a gritty and fantastic crime story that garnered an Oscar nod.

His follow-up was 2012's "Rust and Bone," which showcased a standout performance by Marion Cotillard as a killer-whale trainer who loses her legs after a horrific accident.

Audiard's latest film, "Dheepan," comes with its own buzz as the winner of this year's Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is a Tamil fighter in war-torn Sri Lanka. In an effort to escape the country, he joins other refugees in posing as a small family.

Dheepan and his "wife" (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and "daughter" (Claudine Vinasithamby) make their way to Paris. He finds work as a caretaker at a crime-ridden high-rise, but soon the violence they tried to escape comes back into their lives.

Audiard immerses us in Dheepan's world from the opening scenes, focusing on his faraway eyes as he burns bodies from the bloody civil war. It's a deeply humanizing connection with refugees escaping war, which obviously continues to be a hotly contested issue in Europe and elsewhere.

The film maintains the style and grit on display in "A Prophet," although the narrative arc is never quite as compelling. Watching this forced family unit is intriguing, though, as the emotional toll of what they're escaping comes back again and again.

It's the performances of Jesuthasan, Srinivasan and Vinasithamby that give "Dheepan" its vitality. There's a complexity of emotion present, and much of the credit for that goes to the lead actors, especially Jesuthasan in the title role.

The only thing that keeps "Dheepan" from the lofty greatness of "A Prophet" is some unevenness in the drama. It takes a while to develop and leads up to a finale that feels more like a traditional crime drama than what preceded it. The last act is tense and excellent; it just feels a bit out of place and jarring.

It's still a highly worthwhile and unique experience, and a great perspective into the eyes of war refugees.


Opens Friday at the

Gateway Film Center

3 stars out of 4