A sprawling epic that, thanks to a stunning performance, paints a fascinating portrait of an infamous terrorist.
Charting the career of a true-life criminal or revolutionary,
depending on your viewpoint, seems to be the current trend of the less
mainstream (re; none Hollywood or Independent films) these days. The
likes of the brilliant Mesrine (2008) films and Steven Soderbergh’s epic Che (2008) double hitter have shown that, if done right, the life and crimes of these characters can make for compelling viewing.
Carlos continues this trend through a fascinating central performance
by Edgar Ramirez and a script that examines without ever glamorising
Carlos is the story of Ilch Ramirez Sanchez who would become known as The Jackal,
one of the most notorious terrorists in the late 70s and 80s. The film
follows him as he forges allegiances with the Palestinian Liberation
Front, his slaying of two French police officers and his 1975 assault on
OPEC before his slow demise and later arrest.
Carlos was originally filmed as a three-part mini-series for French
television but was submitted, out of competition, at this year’s Cannes
Film Festival. Heralded as something too big for television this cinema
cut at just under three hours long, the original series runs at close to
five hours, is on a grand scale to say the least. To this extent Carlos
is a long watch but it never feels that way.
Writer director Olivier Assayas, in perhaps his most
accessible venture behind the camera after films like Irma Vep and
Clean, forgoes Carlos’ formative years and focuses on his career as an
international terrorist. There are obvious parallels between Carlos and
Che Guevera but Assayas at no point tries to draw them. Instead his film is a clever examination of a man rife with contradictions.
This is highlighted at various points as Carlos continues to undermine
himself. In one instance his superior informs him that he has become to
famous to continue their work, he responds that he fights for the cause
not fame, and yet when he later sieges OPEC he proudly announces who he
is and even later poses for photos while making his escape. That he
later accepts a ransom for his hostages, having told the negotiators
that money is of no importance to him, is the final straw for many of
Assayas’ direction is deliberately loose and restless, perfectly capturing the essence of his subject matter.
He combines the use of archive news footage to lend a vast amount of
authenticity to the piece making it crystal clear what we are watching
is very much events as they happened. Furthermore, he never resorts to
stylish flurries ensuring the film is grounded in a sense of reality. The violence is always portrayed as matter-of-fact rather than something to be delighted in.
What is crucial though is that Assayas manages to find ways of building
tension. In one scene Carlos relaxes at a party which is interrupted by
French police. In a single shot Carlos makes one of the officers a
drink before retrieving his gun from the bathroom and exiting the flat,
two policemen and an informant dead, in a hail of bullets. It is a
genuinely enthralling moment that never panders to the idea of ‘action’
but lets it unfold naturally.
Of course all of Carlos would fail if the title character had been miscast. Thankfully Edgar Ramirez gives a career defining performance. Like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
(1980) Ramirez has the ability to embody Carlos to perfection,
physically changing over the years in both his mannerisms and emotions. Early
on he brings a smouldering presence to the character, a cold
calculation that will later transform into a washed up, paranoid man
riddled with vanity. Having been a supporting actor in mainstream
films like Domino (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) Carlos will
almost certainly, and deservedly so, see Ramirez offered a wider variety
of roles. Expect to see his name attached to big films off the back of
A hugely detailed and visceral look at a man painted in infamy, who
is shown to be just as fallible as the rest of us. Carlos marks the
arrival of an actor who demands all the accolades he is receiving and
all the roles he will gain off the back of it. True crime is rarely this engaging but Carlos follows in some truly worthy footsteps.