Dali Benssalah’s last big screen outing was in Daniel Craig’s last James Bond outing There is no time for death as the assassin Primo aka Cyclops. It doesn’t take long for Netflix’s intense new thriller Athena to show that he was completely lost in the supporting role of Bond.
The third film from Romain Gavras centers on a trio of brothers whose lives are changed when their 13-year-old brother is killed following an alleged police brawl. With Karim (Sami Slimane) out for revenge and Mokhtar (Wasini Ebarek) just trying to protect his drug-trafficking business, Abdel (Bensalah) must quell the rising tensions.
However, there is only so much Abdel can do when Karim decides to turn their Athena community into a fortress. It’s an attempt to force the police to turn away the people who killed their brother, but it only ends up setting the stage for an inevitable tragedy.
Abdel initially appears to be the kinder and more mature of the brothers, having been called back from the front lines after his brother’s death. He is the one that both his community and the police turn to in order to control Karim and bring things to a peaceful resolution – or as peaceful as possible.
But thanks to Dali Benssalah’s layered performance, Abdel does Athenahis most unpredictable character. It’s a captivating turn that does a lot with a little, as the film’s relentless pace means character development plays second fiddle to riveting set pieces.
Gavras really throws the audience into the siege of Athena, combining long shots and close-up cinematography for a visceral experience. It’s a grueling watch at times, but Gavras makes sure to mix in quieter periods and impressive wide shots to ensure you’re never lost in the scrum.
There are images here that are hard to shake, like a character carrying a still smoldering corpse. If the story is short, Athena it makes up for it with its visuals and performances, packing a punch with subtle character pacing rather than exposition.
Benssalah is the standout, but newcomer Sami Slimane is a revelation as Karim alive, willing to risk it all for what he believes is true justice. You know things probably aren’t going to end well for everyone, yet Slimane’s heartfelt performance makes you wish it did.
As things escalate and escalate over the course of a night (playing out in near real time), Gavras keeps the tension at a breaking point. The moment it breaks is one of the most impressive sequences of the year, not that Gavras lets you down easily with an equally thrilling finale.
Few other films this year, if any, have proven as compelling and pulsating as Athena. Just remember to breathe once you experience it.
Athena is available to watch now on Netflix.