One often wonders what they would be capable of if their life depended on it. Would you take charge, delegate responsibility but do your part, or would you completely break down and cower in the corner? Would you be able to think clearly enough to find a solution to the problem or would your emotions be too overpowering? These are questions that ran through the mind when watching the superbly paced and tense thriller Rattle the Cage. Set entirely in the jail of a local sheriff’s station, the film capitalises on the claustrophobic location to ratchet up the tension almost to a boiling point. There is almost something scientific about the way every character’s action has an equal and opposite reaction as director and co-writer Majid Al Ansari expertly set up and pay off every little element and plot device to brilliant effect.
Talal (Saleh Bakri) has been arrested for fighting another man. He has been interned at the sheriff’s office awaiting arraignment. His life is already on the downturn, having recently been divorced from his wife Wafa (Ahd Kamel) and his recent battle with alcoholism. It’s safe to say, he has reached rock bottom. Things go from bad to worse when deputy sheriff Dhaban (Ali Suliman) enters the equation and it quickly becomes clear he is a criminal posing as a police officer in order to achieve a mysterious goal. He covertly takes over the station while he waits for the next phase of his plan to take effect and so begins a power play between the two men, one whom is locked in a cell and the other who has the keys.
Rattle the Cage is one of the most tightly wound and assured debut features in quite some time. From the opening moments where the camera tracks up, down, and around the sheriff’s station (ala David Fincher’s Panic Room) the film immediately sets the tone; that the audience is in for a ride. Majid Al Ansari apparently learned filmmaking by working on sets and watching other filmmakers work and it shows here. There is a demonstrable knowledge of the way the camera works and the limitations of space in that single location that feels like the work of a veteran filmmaker. The script too is tight as a drum and sets up the action with humour and logic. Every plot device pays off in multiple ways; a sheet knotted together and given to Talal to hang himself he instead uses to hook a portable telephone sitting on a nearby desk just out of reach, and a shirt Dhaban drenches in alcohol to discredit Talal becomes fuel to set off a smoke detector after Talal is able to get his hands on a box of matches (the matches too become integral to the film’s climax). These are just a couple of examples of how well put together and thought out this thriller is.
However, there is one plot device that is introduced in the final scene that almost derails the entire enterprise. In an attempt to really up the stakes, the filmmakers make a decision to introduce a character that will make Talal’s final confrontation much more difficult. It is perfectly understandable why they decide to take the film in this direction but while all the other set pieces have made perfect sense within the context of the film, this character’s appearance at this point in the film is a little more inexplicable and feels more like desperation on behalf of the filmmakers to do something unexpected. Perhaps due to the pace of the film, Ansari is still able to pull out of this disappointing plot development and finish off the film with gusto, so while the film does lose some of its momentum it isn’t enough to completely ruin the overall experience.
There is so much to enjoy about this film. The camera movements and the editing are employed perfectly for a thriller. With a lot of shifting point of view shots through the bars of the cell, the power play between the two men is deeply felt, even (and maybe especially) when Talal gets the upper hand, the juxtaposition of the situation to his location electrifies the atmosphere to a palpable state. This is only increased by the performances by the two men. They almost feel like a comedy act at times, with Talal as the earnest straight man and Bakri is great as the reluctant hero who finds himself in this improbable but dangerous situation. But it is Suliman who steals the show. He plays Dhaban almost to the point of cartoonish villainy but doesn’t tip it over the edge. By keeping the character on that edge he becomes wild and unpredictable, with his psychopathy on full display. He has a great screen presence and provides a tangible threat for Talal to overcome.
Despite a slight misstep in the final act Rattle the Cage is a brilliantly tense thriller from a major new talent. Where he has succeeded is in a real commitment to the premise which pays dividends to the tension and the action. His actors also show the same commitment, relishing the chance to play characters in a genre film. What is really impressive is that this is a genre film from the United Arab Emirates, which has a small but expanding cinematic movement and there is still only a handful of Emirati feature films that have been made. This film could possibly help boost the profile of the country’s cinema and maybe like South Korea (whose cinema Ansari has cited as his main inspiration for this film) the Emirates will become known for brilliantly executed genre cinema. Hopefully Rattle the Cage is the first of many.