After 2004’s Calvaire, Belgian director Fabrice du Welz became associated with the New French Extremity movement in cinema along with such directors as Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo (À l’intérieur), Alexandre Aja (High Tension), and Pascal Laugier (Martyrs). Yet the trajectory of du Welz’ career since has been an unexpected one.
While all of du Welz’ films possess a distinct but often unclassifiable unsettling quality, and often feature extreme physical and/or emotional violence, none since Calvaire could be defined as pure “horror,” per se. The evolution of du Welz’ work is a pleasure to watch. Last year’s Alleluia was both deeply disturbing and shockingly funny, and with his latest film, Message From The King, du Welz continues to defy expectations and forge his own path, even as he nods to films from the past.
Message From The King stars Chadwick Boseman as Jacob King, who arrives in Los Angeles from South Africa on a search for his sister Bianca after she leaves a foreboding voice mail message for him. Whether Jacob knows it or not, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that something terrible has befallen Bianca, and while the question of her ultimate fate is answered early on, the real answers don’t come until the end of the film.
In this way, Message From The King feels a lot like Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey: there is a frustrated person looking to get revenge on the people who have done his family, and therefore him, very wrong. The film’s L.A. location, however, does not highlight the glamour of the Hollywood Hills, but exposes the seedy, ugly part of the city, the one that we saw in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (and his more recent The Neon Demon).
It all seems simple enough at first: Jacob wants to find his sister, who got lost in a world of debauchery and drugs (and possibly worse) and this film is about his journey. Yet we are also on this journey; we find out what’s happening along with Jacob which makes for some heartwrenching drama, not to mention some incredibly brutal action sequences.
We also learn about Jacob through Kelly, a part-time prostitute who lives in the hotel where Jacob is staying. Du Welz does not shoehorn in a romance between these two characters, which helps the film avoid cliché. The connection they share is one of humanity, a quality sorely missing in the majority of the film’s other characters, even the ones that seem friendly at first or display the veneer of respectability.
Here Message From The King pays homage to the gritty noir novels of James Ellroy, not least in the characters of Paul Wentworth (a spectacularly creepy Luke Evans), Mike Preston (the reliably terrifying Alfred Molina), and Frank Leary (Chris Mulkey in a brief but significant role). Like the unfairly maligned season two of True Detective, in Message From The King, Los Angeles is just an ironic name for a city full of demons.
Horrible things happen to people in this movie, making it difficult to watch at times. Du Welz and cinematographer Monika Lenczewska do an outstanding job of making even the filth look fetching, contrasting crane shots of the glittering lights of the city with the sordid reality of dirty outdoor markets and sizzling meat for sale. The irony of course, is that even those things with a polished veneer hide something ugly and for all the terrors it shows us, the film implies even more terrible things. This somehow makes the violence and depravity we do witness that much more upsetting.
The ending of Message From The King is surprising; there is closure, there is redemption, but there is also futility and ambiguity as well as insights into Jacob and Bianca that are sobering. No one is purely good in this film, but some are purely evil. It’s du Welz’ most restrained yet narratively compelling film to date and it’s one that bodes well for what should be a long and successful career.
Message From The King received its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, September 8.