Twelve Days of Axe-mas: Sheitan (2006)

I am taking part in The Chicago Creepout’s Twelve Days of Axe-mas holiday viewing event. This is my day five.

Sheitan is a film that is nearly impossible to describe without spoiling the plot and perverse scenes and surprises that it unleashes on the viewer. To write a review of such a movie would be an exercise in futility since describing scenes intended to shock takes away from their shock value. Instead, I will just dedicate a few hundred words to the performance of Vincent Cassel and his importance to making the film something more than just an exercise in excess.

I have the feeling if I ever met Cassel, I would be disappointed by how normal he is. That’s not to say I expect him to actually be a maniac of the type he plays in Sheitan or have the same livewire energy of the sexually-repressed Russian gangster in Eastern Promises or project the smarmy arrogance of the manipulative ballet director in Black Swan. What I am saying is that in every role I have ever seen him take on, he brings the same feeling of danger. No matter if he is ultimately playing a sympathetic character or a psychopath, from the second he appears on screen, the look in his eyes and the body language he displays is that of a man who could snap at any second.

Sheitan probably makes the best use of Cassel’s discomfiting energy and alien-like face of any film in which he has appeared. Though he plays Joseph, the caretaker of a sprawling home in the French countryside, as comic relief for much of the movie, it’s obvious from his very first appearance in the film that he is even more insane than his bizarre behavior suggests.

It helps that his character is allowed to go to shocking extremes, but the look of a vicious predator toying with its prey before the kill, is one hundred percent in Cassel’s crazed eyes and wide grin. If anything, it feels like the story is ultimately not revealed to be insane or sinister enough to match the scummy depths of perversity Cassel gives Joseph. Sure, there are very grotesque scenes in the film—many of them involving animals used in extraordinarily uncomfortable ways—that go further than most viewers would probably anticipate, but the ultimate twist of the plot and Joseph’s motivation for his over-the-top behavior and antics is not as shocking as the filmmakers seem to believe.

Even if the film fails to fully deliver on its build up, Cassel’s willingness to go to extremes beyond what the script appears to call for is worth seeing. The usual sense of high-wire danger that Cassel brings is not just teased in this film, it’s brought to intense life in a stunning sequence that makes him appear as big as a giant throwing around children. As though flipping a switch, Cassel transforms from comic relief to a frightening boogeyman and the result is like watching Godzilla destroy Tokyo.

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