A moody thriller that both creeps up on you and slaps you in the face.
Prepare to be plunged into an unsettling world in Partisan, but prepare to be unable to look away, too. A charismatic man charms struggling single mothers into his thrall, and the film casts the same spell on its viewers.
The magnetic figure at the centre of the movie is Gregori (Vincent Cassel), who wields his influence over Susanna (Florence Mezzara) when her son is born. Eleven years later, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) is the eldest child in Gregori's commune, secreted away on the outskirts of a rundown city and sheltered from the rest of the civilisation. His days, like those of the other kids living there, are filled with lessons and attempts to win gold stars for good behaviour. They're taught about gardening and trust, and play violent games with paintball guns — which Alexander then relives, outside the compound's walls, with a real weapon.
Much of Partisan beguiles, early on, by remaining ambiguous and refusing to make plain its story — and by the time some of the pieces start to come together, you'll probably realise that you're already hooked. Just what Gregori is up to isn't the real point, nor why. Instead, the film pulls apart the bonds that a parent holds over his progeny, with Alexander's questioning nature kicking into gear when a new boy, Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), joins the fold but refuses to do what he's told.
First-time director Ariel Kleiman, who also co-wrote the script with his partner Sarah Cyngler, was inspired by actual accounts of child assassins; however, their movie doesn't even pretend to reflect reality. It's not a typical killer kid flick either, for those familiar with The Professional and Hanna. Partisan toys with recognisable components such as cults and crime, but makes everything in its frames its own.
That includes an ambient score that will echo around your head as it sets an eerie, uneasy tone, and lingering images that do what so many films try to: find glimpses of beauty in gritty, grimy brutality. While the narrative demands attention, doling out its details in fits and spurts, it's the way that Kleiman creates an unnerving atmosphere with both sound and vision that intrigues the most, and proves completely immersive.
Well, that and the performances, particularly Cassel and newcomer Chabriel. Oscar Isaac was originally set to play the part of Gregori, and though there's no doubt he would've fit the bill (as his mesmerising menace in Ex Machina proves), Cassel is never anything less than hypnotic. There's something especially savvy about using the actor, who is so often seen as a more blatant threat, as someone with such power and allure.
Plus, his rapport with his inexperienced but all-round excellent co-star is simultaneously natural and on-edge, as a father-son bond threatened by rebellion should. Watching Partisan, you'll swiftly become invested in their efforts, and in a moody, tug-of-war-like thriller that both creeps up on the audience and slaps them in the face.