Outside the Law is the latest in a growing body of good to great movies that explore the causes and effects of terrorism. Like Terror’s Advocate, Paradise Now, Day Night Day Night, Munich, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Army of Shadows (which was made in 1969 but not released here until 2006), and, most recently, Carlos, Outside the Law is interested less in the victims of terrorist acts than in the people who commit them. What makes them turn to violence? How does it change them? And, above all, do their ends justify their means? (An interesting sidebar to this exchange was this year’s Mesrine, an overlong gangster story distinguished by an excellent cast and a nicely sardonic take on our fascination with terrorists. Its title character is a real-life two-bit sociopath who saw himself—and, for a while, got the starry-eyed media to portray him—as a revolutionary idealist committing acts of terror against the capitalist state, since that sounds so much cooler and more important than robbing banks for a living.)
Outside the Law director/writer Rachid Bouchareb wants us to see how blurry the line is between the acts we define as terrorism and the horrors committed by nation-states and accepted by most of us as an inevitable byproduct of the police actions and prison systems and wars and political maneuvers that prop up the status quo. Carlos does something similar, but where that movie explores the symbiotic relationship between the two, tracing the vast network of not-quite-officially warring nations that were eager to hire its subject to carry out their clandestine commands, Outside the Law’s unaffiliated terrorists are locked in mortal combat with the state-sponsored killers whose methods they have adopted.
Time and again, Bouchareb shows us the French committing brutal acts of repression while helpless Algerians watch in horror. The story begins in Algeria in 1925, with the theft of a family’s land by the French colonizers who were then seizing farms owned by Algerians and giving them to European settlers. ("May God punish them," says the father, a prayer that we sense will be answered.) The displaced family includes three brothers who stand for a range of Algerian reactions to French oppression: Said (Jamel Debbouze) just wants to live large and run the boxing gym that is "my real place," Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is a righteous Malcolm X figure devoted to avenging his people, and Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) is a reluctant recruit who lets his brother pull him into the revolution because he believes in the cause, but is sickened by the killing he’s called on to do.
Outside the Law pointedly highlights tactics often associated with terrorists from Arab-speaking countries to show us their European roots. The only beheading we see is of an Algerian political prisoner, who is guillotined "in the name of the French republic" while a horrified Abdelkader looks on, and the unarmed civilians who are killed en masse are peaceful demonstrators slaughtered by colonial gunmen as they march for Algerian independence.
Bouchareb’s last movie was the excellent Days of Glory, another fact-based fiction that highlighted France’s shameful treatment, both during and after the war, of the Algerians who fought for France in WWII. This film is just as beautifully and intelligently shot as that one was, this time by cinematographer Christian Beaucame. Shallow depth of field, unobtrusively luscious lighting, and judiciously used close-ups intensify the focus on the three main characters and their internal torment, and the selective colorization Spielberg used to highlight the little girl in red in Schindler’s List is nicely used during that march for independence, a black-and-white scene in which only the flags are in color. Bouchareb also researched this story the same way he did Days of Glory, interviewing scores of people who lived through the events fictionalized in the film before writing the script. His three main characters even have the same names and are portrayed by the same excellent actors.
But the three are very different people this time, with different relationships to one another, and their story feels less startlingly fresh. Where Days of Glory felt as real as dirt, Outside the Law relies too much on crime-movie tropes like the predictable conflicts between the three brothers. Its coincidences—like the connections Messaoud makes during his stint as a POW in Vietnam—feel like a screenwriter’s lazy shortcut. Its dialogue too often preaches or tells us things we already know, or both, like when Abdelkader’s mother visits him in prison to say: "You’re not a criminal. You’re in prison for your ideas. You’re a man." And its tone is too relentlessly somber. A lovely but lonely little moment of lightness, in which Abdelkader and Messaoud argue about the merits of American pop music while waiting to transport a busload of weapons, lands like a sprinkling of rain on a desert.
But Bouchareb makes a convincing case about the European/colonial roots of terrorism and its persistence as a tool of state warfare. In one of the historically accurate scenes, he even shows Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancon), the former French resistance fighter turned cop who tried to shut down the Algerian resistance in France, deciding to fight terrorism with terrorism. Faivre commissioned a group of his men to off members of Abdelkadar’s group without the bother of arrests or trials, using the cover of a defunct guerilla organization.
As Bouchareb has Faivre acknowledge to Abdelkader’s martyred corpse in a typically overengineered ending, the Algerian terrorists won their battle. They did it in pretty short order, too, considering that the demonstration that starts the film took place in 1945 and the matching parade at the end, in which Algerians crowd the streets to celebrate their newly won freedom, came just 17 years later. So did the ends justify the means? Outside the Law votes yes.
Opens November 3