The lead performances are extraordinary. They’re real-seeming, in the manner of so many gifted but relatively inexperienced performers who haven’t yet had the spontaneity crushed out of them by the cliches of formal training. And, as is often the case with the Dardennes, the handheld, up-close, acting-driven filmmaking puts you in the middle of the drama, to a sometimes nerve-wracking degree, though with a bit less shakiness than you would’ve seen in the brothers’ earlier features (switching to digital cameras may have brought understated elegance to their previously rough-and-tumble style). There might be fewer than 100 shots in the movie. The scenes tend to unfold in just one take, which would be impressive no matter who the actors were, but that is especially noteworthy here, considering that the two leads aren’t known quantities. A long take in the middle of the movie that follows physically and emotionally intense action through the halls and rooms of Betim’s drug greenhouse lasts almost five minutes, but it’s executed with such offhand confidence you never think of it as a logistical feat.
The “you-are-there” style works better in films like this than in stories about more privileged characters (Ken Loach does it brilliantly as well), because what defines Tori and Lokita’s life more than anything else is urgency. Everything is present-tense. They can’t waste mental bandwidth looking too far backwards or ahead. They don’t have enough time, they don’t have enough money, and they’re surrounded by people who exploit, harass, or ignore them. They have to keep moving, and keep their eyes and ears on hyper-alert as they travel. Ninety-nine percent of every day is spent dealing with what’s right in front of them while being careful not to make a mistake that will get them deported, jailed, or killed.
The ending is so bleak that it will linger in viewers’ minds for the rest of their lives—much like the tragic Neorealist Italian films of the 1940s that the Dardennes films often evoke, especially “Bicycle Thieves” and “Rome, Open City.” Perhaps there’s a conversation to be had about the way the film occasionally takes too much of a macro view, seeing its title characters mainly as pawns in a corrupt system more so than freestanding individuals and part of a Black immigrant community that’s loathed for their Otherness but needed for their willingness to do low-wage and/or dangerous jobs. But the lead actors bring audiences inside each moment so skillfully you can intuit flashes of context the script may not necessarily have provided. And the Dardennes’ empathy is so great, and their anger at the situation so unmistakable, that the entire film is borne along by a desire to shock viewers into calling for change.
Now playing in select theaters.