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Thousand Cuts
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by Jay Seaver

"Dark, mean, still kind of fun."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You can tell "Thousand Cuts" ("Le serpent aux mille coupures" in the original French) is going to be an excellent slow burn from the start, as director Eric Valette contrives to bring three or four more or less unrelated groups to the same deserted spot in rural France and doesn't make it seem like a ridiculous premise despite being a huge coincidence. It's a tingly feeling that this could be a really entertaining mess, a sensation that only increases as an even more dangerous fellow shows up after the first bit of violence and two law-enforcement agencies get involved.

It starts with a drug deal going down; Jean-François (Stéphane Debac) doesn't really want to go through Spanish drug kingpin Javier any more. He soon won't have to, as an escaped felon (Tomer Sisley) crosses path with Javier's crew and comes out injured, but at least alive, disposing of the car and bodies well enough that a cartel lawyer and fixer (Terence Yin) are dispatched to find out who is responsible. Adrien holes up in the nearby farm, where owner Omar (Cédric Ido) and his wife Stéphanie (Erika Sainte) are already on on high alert because a lot of the locals do not like that a black man purchased the place after the previous owner went bankrupt - and, indeed, the key witness who could unravel the whole thing (Guillaume Destrem) was there to vandalize and destroy crops.

From there, it's all about turning the screws, and Valette does a fine job of that making not just the audience but the less-hardcore thugs wince as the worst of them tortures his way to what's going on while the folks pegged as heroes are more or less helpless. It does, eventually, wind up with Valette and co-writer Hervé Albertazzi (who wrote the source novel and is credited under nom de plume DOA) stretching themselves a little thin - Omar and his family disappear for a while as the situation in town gets more out of control, and while the various law-enforcement agencies getting along is a nice change of pace, it implies we don't need quite so many people involved. This mostly works, because the careful, measured progress keeps the audience glued to the screen as the very implausibility of the set-up keeps everybody orbiting each other, eventually drawing closer until the big confrontation comes.

And then that's pretty darn good, a demonstration of how the French don't really mess around when it comes time to throw everything against each other in this type of flick. One gets the sense that Valette and Albertazzi would not be shy about cutting people down even with a small cast, but the large group they have to winnow means that a lot of the bullets flying around at the end can find people. Valette and his crew stage, shoot, and cut the big action scenes well - even with all the groups involved, nobody gets lost, and the filmmakers are good at giving the audience the lay of the land just before they need it, to see who will have cover in a shootout, and by that time the viewer has a pretty good idea of who will be good at exploiting cover or the weapons they have available and who will be overmatched.

Valette also manages a rare successful downshift from cringe-inducing nastiness to thrills. Thousand Cuts starts off in fairly dark territory - that the local bigots are terrorizing a man who just wants to live a quiet life is almost taken as a given - but still manages to amp things up as the cartel comes to town and Terence Yin's vicious, efficient assassin gets to work (Hong Kong import Yin plays more chilly than cool much of the time, but he's giving one of the film's more interesting performances, especially outside of the dynamic Tomer Sisley, Cédric Ido, and Erika Sainte are creating at the farmhouse). That's often a point of no return, and Valette doesn't quite pull back, but he's able to keep enough moving that the audience isn't entirely in a mire, and can thus still get excited as things start to heat up.

It's a neat trick, that, diving head-first into that French sort of fatalism without getting so caught up in it that being a thriller seems pointless. "Thousand Cuts" is a mean, violent little film, but it's a lot more exciting than many which go that route.

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originally posted: 11/09/17 10:11:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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