An expert in serial killers, Commissaire Pierre Niemans (Jean Reno) is sent to a small university town in the mountains to investigate the killing of one of the students, who also worked in the library. His body was found suspended from a cliff, and has been subjected to terrible tortures, including having his hands cut off and his eyes removed, all while he was still alive. Strangely, the eye sockets of the corpse have been filled with rainwater - could this be a clue? Whoever the murderer is, they are leaving a trail for Niemans to follow, and somehow the elite of the town who run and attend the university are closely involved - but how?
When The Crimson Rivers, scripted by the director Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Christophe Grangé (who wrote the original novel), was first released, it was described as a French version of Seven, and it's true there are similarities. Two cops teaming up to solve a baffling, macabre crime, the killer's moral motive, the well-sustained atmosphere of doom and the horrific overtones: they're all here. But while Seven was relatively easy to follow, the plot of this film is incredibly convoluted, with almost too much information to take in. Crucially, however, if you pay attention you will be rewarded, and if you just want to soak up the ambience and enjoy the suspense without taxing your brain, then you'll still appreciate it.
For about two thirds of the time The Crimson Rivers is like watching two films running at once, as Niemans' exploits are intercut with the investigations of Lieutenant Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel). Max is drawn into the case when a young girl's grave is desecrated, apparently by neo-Nazis, and the school she attended years before suffers a break in. Nothing is taken, but all record of her stay there is mysteriously destroyed. It's an hour into the film before Niemans and Max meet, and ask that all-important question, "What's going on?"
Casting Reno and Cassel was a good idea, as they both have distinct screen personalities that transcend the wandering about in darkened rooms and endless interviewing of suspects stuff that comes with the territory. Reno looks pensive while Cassel is more aggressive. Some of those investigation scenes are excellent, such as when Max goes to question the dead girl's mother, now a nun who believes her daughter was killed by demons. Also impressive is the sequence where Niemans climbs down a glacier accompanied by student Fanny (Nadia Farès), a young woman who takes an interest in the case.
To break up the tension there are bursts of action, including a Seven-style chase and an incident with Niemans' car being rammed by a truck; however, the over-the-top fight between Max and two neo-Nazis looks like it would fit more snugly in The Matrix. The climax, halfway up a mountain, is suitably spectacular, and despite all appearances to the contrary, manages to tie up all the plotlines with a preposterous revelation about the university and one of the characters. Well-photographed with prowling camerawork and glowering shadows, The Crimson Rivers is surprisingly enjoyable for all its stylish echoes of Hollywood thrillers. Music by Bruno Coulais.
French writer, director and actor. As writer and director, he made his biggest impact with electrifying urban drama La Haine. Assassin(s) followed, a longer version of one of his short films, then he moved into the thriller/horror genre with The Crimson Rivers and Gothika, sci-fi with the doomed Babylon A.D and real life drama in Rebellion. As an actor, he's best known for being the "hero" in A Self-Made Hero and as the heroine's romantic interest in Amelie.