One of the scintillating issues about movies is the problem of villains: movies can officially disapprove of a character who does bad things, but if that character is played by an actor with great glamour or charisma and gets the best nasty lines in the script, we have a tendency to gravitate toward that person regardless of the film’s official stance. The issue is even thornier when the villain is the central figure, as in Bonnie and Clyde or the two versions of Scarface, although there are many films, Bonnie and Clyde among them, that consciously explore the problem.
Olivier Assayas is part of a generation of filmmakers who frequently try to drain their movies of traditional seductive melodrama, although he also knows how to turn that stuff on when he wants to. In the case of Carlos, Assayas has built a five and a half hour TV miniseries around the misadventures of the notorious and highly visible terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and the plain recounting of various facts (and some speculation) about Carlos’s life makes for a less than romantic take on the criminal career. Assayas emphasizes the more absurd interludes in the arc of this career, as well as Carlos’s egocentric taste for the glory of infamy, so that most viewers will be unlikely to come out of this movie impressed by the coolness of the villain.
It also helps that the actor who plays the central role (a heroic performance by any standard), Édgar Ramírez, has the broad, handsome, self-satisfied face of a born self-satisfier. You take one look at him and think, Man, what a dick, and Ramírez never lets that first impression fade – even if Carlos evinces a few apparently authentic true-believer-in-the-revolutionary-cause moments early in the film, he conveys no sense of reflection or gravity. More shark than jackal: just the kneejerk evolutionary promotion of the self, in whatever situation.
By portraying the levels within the terrorist antfarm, Assayas creates both gripping suspense and black comedy – the latter approaching the gold standard of the rivalries and internecine power struggles taking place between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. Along with Carlos’s father/son mindgames with Palestinian terror honcho Wadie Haddad (spellbinding performance by Ahmad Kaabour), the game of lethal Risk is best played out in the movie’s longest sustained sequence, the 1975 hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna, which becomes both terrifying and ludicrous.
Assayas automatically tilts toward the absurd and the Kubrickian (not in Kubrick’s style, but in attitude – Assayas still favors the handheld, seemingly casual approach to scene-covering, with his usual technique of cutting frames in mid-shot to jump things along); a large part of this world’s population would find all of this deadly serious, another large segment would find this all laughable. Assayas seems to have gone through a process similar to the one Kubrick went through on Dr. Strangelove: the more research he did, the more hilarious it all got. (See Four Lions for another application of terrorism’s realities to create pitch-black comedy.) Whether or not you find Carlos funny probably depends on which part of the population you belong to.
Even though Carlos (and Ramírez) has his rock-star moments, the accumulation of mundane detail works against any possible glamorization of the character. During Carlos’s endgame, as he packs on the pounds and spins his wheels in Yemen and the Sudan, he endures ongoing testicular pain while pondering liposuction. These things tend to detract a bit from the grandeur.
The five-hour running time wears away the appeal, too. You can’t come away from the film too jazzed about the sociopathic doofus whose life we have been viewing, especially as the engrossing strategic plays of the film’s first two sections give way to the disorganized action of the final section, a third act that tends to grind on. I like the movie, find it an admirable thing, but it is really long.
At one point Carlos, getting on in age now, is seen clowning around with a little kid, a scene that stirs memories of Brando goofing with his grandson in The Godfather. Now that’s a movie that creates warmth and nostalgia and plenty of movie-star glamour around its Mafia characters, contra its intended lessons about the bad decisions made by Michael Corleone and all that. Who can go against the idea of family and the fat, lovable Clemenza’s recipe for pasta sauce? Assayas and Carlos deserve some credit just for undercutting that kind of movie romance, and wearing you down with the banal and the dead.