Writer/director Thomas Kruithof’s French, forceful debut feature recalls classic conspiracy thrillers such as The Parallax View, All The Presidents Men and Marathon Man, while standing matchless amongst its predecessors due to inherent timeless qualities; stark realism, bleak cinematography and an ability to efficiently subvert/meld several sub-genre styles and components. Mostly resembling Coppola’s The Conversation due to the nature of protagonist Duval (comfortably alone, introvert), similar to Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, along with his comparable occupation and the central story of a Government surveyor/transcriber in over his head. Scribe also incorporates traits from 90s political thrillers with conspiratorial sub-plots about corrupt officials with ulterior motives. Meanwhile the subtle suggestion of grittier, higher octane latter Bond and Bourne films slightly informs its style, augmented by a lo/sci-fi edge and embellished by the score.
François Cluzet plays Duval, a recovering alcoholic, ex-office clerk, wilting into unemployment during his mid-fifties, until he receives a phone call from cagy stranger Clement (Denis Podalydès): a furtive operative who offers him a job transcribing tapped phone conversations. Forced to work in secrecy and under snug regulations for a “surveillance organisation, operating in the country’s best interests”, Duval soon finds his life under threat from mysterious figure Gerfaut (Simon Abkarian). When the nature of the phone calls evolve from banal political chit chat to the sounds of muffled violence, Duval begins to question the morality of his new profession and the nature of his employer.
Brilliant performances from Cluzet and Alba Rohrwacher as Clara (a fellow alcoholic and potential love interest/possible spy), meld tension and authenticity along with Kruithof’s coarse enforcing style, capturing moments using flat close-ups like a hidden camera or POV of a passive observer with muffled, sterile colours via stark cinematography from Alex Lamarque. Political plot components evoke 90s legal/ John Grisham thrillers (Libyan businessman, hostages, rigged elections and dogmatic campaigns, subterfuge), along with Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, while the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation/fish out of water, aptly conjures Hitchcock.
Scribe grows tenser as it progresses when Duval tries to quit his job but can’t while subtle character/filmic ticks provide extra depth and plot context. It’s a tight, tension loaded and refreshingly edgy surveillance thriller, immaculately crafted with tremendous performances. Harking back to the best of the classic 70s (and some 90s) conspiracy/ political mysteries while blending subtle action ticks from latter Bourne and Bond films, Kruithof’s film has the further benefit of seeming timeless by way of its resistance to incorporate much modern technology (Duval not being allowed to use a digital device to transcribe so must work on an old typewriter). Scribe also severs ties to pre and post millennial paranoia tech thrillers like The Net and Swordfish and benefits hugely from lo-fi realism which makes it persistently gripping and simmering with calm-cutting suspense.
Scribe is released on July 21st.