ATHENA is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. I have no idea how they did it. I have one (1) huge issue with it, which prevents it from being one of my top movies of last year, but it’s a big ass spoiler that I will deal with separately at the end of this review. And you may disagree with me, so don’t worry about that for now. What’s important is that this is a thrilling cinematic experience and about as epic as a movie could feel while clocking in at less than 100 minutes. And it’s on Netflix – it’s one of the ones that actually wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t funded it – so it’s a very accessible way to get knocked flat on your ass by a concussion grenade of impeccable spectacle.
For those who haven’t heard of it, ATHENA is an intense French action-thriller about a battle between riot cops and the predominantly French-Algerian residents of a housing project (in a Parisian banlieue, you know, like the parkour movie) after the death of a 13 year old kid named Idir. Idir’s oldest brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, NO TIME TO DIE) is a straight-laced soldier who exits police headquarters and announces to the press that they’ve promised to investigate which officers were responsible for his brother’s death. He asks that the people of the Athena project please stay calm and peaceful.
But Idir’s other brother Karim (Sami Slimane) isn’t buying that shit, so he tosses a molotov cocktail, and an army of other fed up young radicals storm the building. Filmatistically ATHENA is a cousin to CHILDREN OF MEN, THE REVENANT and 1917 – it’s a series of hypnotic long take sequences that seem impossible to orchestrate without mass injury. If there are any normal length shots they blended in enough that I didn’t notice. So we glide into the mayhem as the invaders fill the air with roman candle sparks and smoke, find the armory, steal helmets and vests and a safe, load them into a stolen police van, drive it all the way home (more of a celebratory parade than a car chase, since it takes the cops a minute to regroup), and get in place for the inevitable onslaught.
Slimane, who has no other credits, has an absolutely arresting screen presence as the camera follows him through all this. Everyone rallies behind Karim because they’ve seen the video of his brother’s death, but he’s clearly an experienced leader of some kind – he’s constantly directing people (call so-and-so and tell them we’re coming, go to this place and do this) and they do what he says without question or hesitation. The sequence is so full of interesting details and turns – people on the roofs assuming the police van is being driven by police and throwing things at them, a guy proudly telling Karim about the 30 track suits he stole for them to wear like uniforms, people taking selfies while hanging off the side of the van – but for me the most exhilarating part is the guys on motorcycles doing wheelies next to the van as they hit the road with the stolen loot. It makes me think of the training montage that gives me goosebumps every time I watch CREED, and also the fact that these filmmakers are pretty much doing wheelies with their cameras. Most of all it’s a moment when we can naively share their premature swagger and feeling of triumph. Take that, motherfuckers!
My second favorite part is the guy who runs up along the van on the street asking for a smoke, is told “not now,” but much later when Karim passes him inside the walls he hands him one. And the same guy randomly shows up on a horse later. Where the fuck did a get a horse, and why? Man, this is a movie.
Many/most reviews say it’s not as good after the opening, and/or there’s not enough story here, neither of which were my experience at all. Within the confines of this standoff/siege/riot situation there’s all kinds of shit going on. The older residents meet and try to figure out how to evacuate. Abdel promises them he’ll talk Karim down, and is also directed to hide Sebastien (Alexis Manenti), who we’ve heard on the news is on a terrorist watch list. They find him gardening with headphones on, apparently oblivious to the chaos around him, but his eyes get big and he smiles as they drag him to safety and he sees what’s going on. (Admittedly I like this part of the story more when it remains ambiguous what we should think about him.)
There’s another thread about another family member, half brother Moktar (Ouassini Embarek, BAISE-MOI, CASH TRUCK), a coke dealer trying to bury his product outside of the walls before the feds get there. The others see him and his henchmen carrying bags and refuse to let them leave, thinking they’re loaded with guns they can use. So they have to find a different hiding place.
Karim’s plan is to abduct “a fed” and hold him until they release the names of the officers in the video. The unlucky hostage is Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a babyfaced officer who we’ve watched nervously entering the fray before getting dragged away from his squad. Without words the movie communicates that he’s just a guy doing his job getting in over his head, probly not understanding or necessarily believing any of it. But damned if he doesn’t get into hitting random poor people with a nightstick.
Of course there’s no clear right side in this conflict. I question anyone who doesn’t sympathize most with Karim, but this whole plan is obviously immoral and proves not to be productive. Still, you understand him and the urge to fight. For Americans the riot imagery can’t help but evoke January 6th (or for Brazilians, January 8th), so it forced me to wonder how I’d feel if something like that was done on behalf of a cause I agreed with instead of a sleazy delusional conman flattering people’s bigotry and filling their heads with ridiculous horse shit. If instead of neo-nazis and Fox News suckers it was the good guys doing the wrong thing, how would I feel about it then? I don’t know.
Abdel is an interesting character because wanting to make peace is the right thing, but you see him with his beret saying to trust the police to investigate themselves and you’re like alright dork, shut up and get out of the way, nobody wants to hear this shit. Even when the old people are meeting and ranting about the young “savages” doing this, one of them calls Abdel “the oppressor.” And when, in a tearful argument, Karim says that Abdel should’ve died instead of Idir, Abdel takes a long breath and then agrees.
So I admit I did not find myself enthusiastically rooting for the right side when Abdel gets to Jerome, unties him, and makes a truce with Moktar to get him outside. They’re so close to saving him but Karim is standing outside a metal grate threatening to toss in a firebomb. Very tense.
The tone of this doesn’t remind me of THE WARRIORS or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 at all, and yet it’s a similar idea – it’s intentionally designed to be like a Greek myth, not a documentary. But for me this scene is when it definitively crosses over from quasi-realism to a more poetic approach. (MAJOR SPOILER coming up.) Abdel and Karim are very set in their ways and represent opposing viewpoints. But when Abdel sees Karim shot by police – though he certainly understands why they did it – it almost instantly radicalizes him. Here’s a long-take sequence that’s as powerful as any of the massive set pieces, but much simpler and more intimate: In an act of absolute brutality, Abdel unleashes all of his rage on an unsuspecting Moktar, screaming and pounding his face into the floor. We see his fists, we don’t see them connect, it’s completely off screen, and I don’t think we even see any blood. But we get the idea that Moktar has to have been turned into mush. (Wikipedia says Benssalah is a former Muay Thai champion.) Once he’s done, the camera stays close on Abdel as he pants for a long time. He calmly states that anyone who wants out should put their weapons down and leave. Some of them do. Then he stands up and starts directing the troops. Karim is gone, and Abdel takes his place.
If the system keeps shitting on people, they’ll turn against it eventually. Even its biggest fans.
That’s all very interesting, and by the way most of it happens during scenes that had me constantly wondering “How the fuck did they even do this?” I didn’t notice any digital effects, and the director claims there are none, but most of the movie involves cameras moving through locations with crowds of extras, fireworks, smoke bombs, flames, characters and vehicles moving in different directions and hitting marks at just the right time for the camera to reach them. There are stunts that seem impossible to set up and time exactly as needed, but also there are just big melees going on between crowds of locals and cops wailing on each other, stuff that couldn’t exactly be choreographed. Reportedly they rehearsed the whole film with a small camera for almost two months to get the rhythm down. The cinematographer is Matias Boucard (a producer of PIXELS!? [because he shot the short it was based on]) and stunt coordinator is Jerome Gaspard (CLIMAX, TITANE).
For that alone I highly recommend checking out ATHENA. But as I said in the opening paragraph, I have one not insignificant complaint, which I will yell and punch the movie’s face in about in the spoiler section below. Before that, I will say that this is incredible craftsmanship from Romain Gavras, a director of music videos and ads plus two previous narrative features (OUR DAY WILL COME and THE WORLD IS YOURS). I will definitely keep an eye out for him now.
SPOILER DISCUSSION OF THE VERY END OF THE MOVIE. DO NOT READ. EVER.
If my power had gone out a minute before the end credits, ATHENA would’ve been in my top five of the year. I was ready to certify it a GFM (Great Fuckin Movie) and 4 or 5 star banger from the opening frame until the final reveal happened. The last scene is such whiplash from greatness to are-you-fuckin-kidding-me!? that it reminds me of that plot twist that went over so poorly in HIGH TENSION. But it’s much crueler because it’s not just adding a dumb layer to a good slasher movie, it’s transforming a cathartic of-the-moment (but also timeless) movie into some dumb bullshit, shifting its allegiance from The People to The Man at the very last second. Such a betrayal. I was so mad.
Here’s what happens. It has been mentioned a few times throughout the movie (on a news report, by a “good cop” trying to work with Abdel, and a random person talking about what he’s seen on social media) that it might not really be cops who killed Idir, it might’ve been right wing extremists pretending to be cops. It works because in the real world “police and their backers” (as Curtis sang in “[Don’t Worry] If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”) do love to make up bullshit theories to explain away every monstrous thing cops ever do.
But this last scene shows the death of Idir and we find out that it’s not a bullshit theory – cops didn’t kill him. They were framed! Thankfully we don’t have to see the poor kid beaten to death, but we see his body, and then the “police” who killed him leave and get in a van and then they take off their uniforms and burn them, and one of them has an iron cross tattoo on the back of his head to imply they’re skinheads or whatever. So it turns out pre-radicalization-Abdel was right: Karim and friends should’ve calmly waited for the police to investigate, and then should’ve believed the very convenient conclusion they would’ve come to that they were innocent. And everyone could’ve hugged and believed in the system now that they know it wasn’t the system that did this it was some bad apples and not even officially sanctioned bad apples.
I’m sure the filmatists didn’t think of this scene as exonerating police of brutality. I’m sure they were thinking “See, both sides are playing into the hands of bad people when we fight each other.” But it’s such a ludicrous notion. I can’t claim to understand France, but I doubt their cops are so different from ours that they don’t do the same shit that the first 90+ minutes of this movie are such a primal scream against. They are the ones who shoot at the cop they’re trying to rescue when he has a chance to escape. And who fuck up so bad that they cause their greatest advocate on the inside to do a complete 180 against them. Who push the poor and non-white until they finally push back and then delight in the opportunity to go to war with them. You know this is the world we live in but now you’re asking us to believe that police killings of innocent minorities are so rare, and so hard for the authorities to sweep under the rug, that this right wing militia knows that one would cause a civil war, but that they would have to do it themselves!?
It’s so laughable and insulting. Most disappointing cop-related cop out since STRANGE DAYS’ “Give the video to the deputy police commissioner, he can be trusted, the end.”
Generally I’m in favor of right wing extremists being used as movie bad guys, since various stripes of them are terrorizing us all around the world. But you gotta understand, ATHENA – we can’t make peace with the cops and the system to unite against the right wing extremists, because they are not entirely separate entities. Many cops and politicians are right wing extremists, or agree with them, and if not are often following policies that come from their ideology. Some law enforcement departments even have literal gangs, wear Punisher symbols, get kill count tattoos, and their unions are openly fascist thugs and propagandists who even in liberal cities like mine get virtually no push back when they bully governments into nixing accountability and giving them preposterously inflated budgets that are counterproductive to community safety. So we can’t just shake hands with the nice ones and fight a shared enemy. It’s not that fuckin simple, ATHENA. You seemed to get that until just now. What happened to you, ATHENA? You could’ve been beautiful, man.
P.S. Here’s how Gavras describes the movie in an interview with CNN:
“We wanted to bring a Greek tragedy aspect into it; almost like a myth of the near future. It is set in France now, but it could have been set in the Trojan War, medieval wars, maybe a war in the future with Elon Musk on the moon. Because the situation is an archetype of how a war – a civil war, more specifically – can be ignited in real time. “
Yep, that sounds like THE WARRIORS all right. It’s so close to a masterpiece.