Coming of age is usually met with apprehension and in most cultures or cases, this transition is marked by significant events. For Malik, a young Frenchman of Arab descent, there is no celebration to attend, no family member to share the moment, no friend to encourage him, no glory. It is only the strenuous rehearsal and the agonising anticipation of the moment when he will kill a man with the razor blade he clumsily hides in his mouth. He is in prison and it seems life has just ended for him.
Prison is excruciating for a man who feels being denied of his freedom of mind and expression, yet Malik, played by Tahar Rahim, is a young man of little expectations, a small time loser who probably accidentally took the fall. Skinny, with slightly androgynous features, a babe in the woods, Malik catches the eye of a prisoner there (Hichem Yacoubi) called Reyeb, whom the head of the Corsican gang running the prison, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), wants dead. Under the false pretence of offering him sexual favours, Malik enters the man's cell and clumsily kills him in a bloody, violent scene that will leave him trembling. His blood bath will be the beginning of a new life for the young man.
This new life has its perks- learning to read, to speak the Corsican dialect, to fly for the first time, to feel the sea washing his feet, to make friends- but also turns him into a murderer, smuggler, drug dealer. Prison life robs him of his innocence and offers him the means he needs to become financially successful and, above all, to make it to the end of his sentence in one piece. There is no school like prison and the uneducated young Malik becomes the brutal, violent product of a corrupted, ruthless world that takes its toll on the weak and unfortunate. Under the influence and protection of Cesar Luciani, Malik learns fast and keeps his nose to the grindstone; when the time comes he shakes off Cesar's authority and starts his own drug smuggling. With his sick friend on the outside, Ryad, Malik runs a flourishing business that brings him money and a name for himself.
Jacques Audiard makes an exceptional drama about a man's becoming- a young man caught between two worlds: that of an Arab deprived of Islamic identity and of a man without a past, thrown at the mercy of powerful influential mobsters. It is not his intention to make us feel for Malik or easily pass judgement on him; instead, we are witnesses to his transformation and shaken by the bloody stages of this development. Tahar Rahim's character is an ever adaptable creature, deprived of any glow or charisma, merely a survivor that fights evil with its own weapons. Yet, the most remarkable performance comes from Niels Arestrup, a familiar face in Jacques Audiard's previous movies, who is authentic as the Corsican mobster who despises weakness and suspects everyone. The movie is compelling and surprising in the way it depicts Malik's psychological state of mind-his hallucinatory conversations with his victim, the bold dream of a fleeing deer, which turns him into A Prophet in the eyes of the others, or the iris shots of gripping hands.
Jacques Audiard's movie is an unpredictable drama with memorable characters and unforgettable scenes that casts a poetic light on the social turmoil France experiences with its Arab immigrants. It is a movie about the power of our survival instincts and the violence we shelter in our hearts. Is it Fate that throws the dices for us or do we make our grand choices by ourselves? And if we do, is courage the lesson we take to our hearts?