Israel’s fractured psyche is plumbed via narrative splintering in Policeman, Nadav Lapid’s compelling drama about his homeland’s burgeoning social unrest. Lapid’s story begins with Yaron (Yiftach Klein), a member of an elite counter-terrorism unit and a borderline caricature of national masculine pride, proclaiming high atop a mountain after a bike ride with his equally macho mates, “This is the most beautiful country in the world,” dancing with hip-thrusting suggestiveness for his pregnant wife, and greeting his comrades with back-slaps so powerful that their sounds overwhelm the soundtrack. Yaron is the epitome of he-man Israeli military might, and the first (and longest) sequence of Lapid’s debut focuses on his day-to-day activities, which involve attending a barbeque where men playfully wrestle and he checks himself out in the mirror while holding a baby (to see how impending fatherhood will suit him), and trying to pick up a 15-year-old waitress at a café by showing her (and asking if she wants to stroke) his gun. Virility and power define him, as does a steadfast belief in the unassailable virtue of his country, which must be protected at all costs in a manner similar to the health of his unit, which—under fire for a prior shooting that claimed some Palestinian lives—he plans to protect from prosecution by having fatally brain tumor-stricken squad member Ariel take the fall for the incident.
Ariel is a cancer that must be excised for the survival of the team, just as combat casualties must be accepted for the good of the nation, a body-politic undercurrent that Lapid introduces deftly. That internal-disease metaphor extends to the material’s second half, in which the story—after a scene in which a gang of nihilistic punks trashes a car for no reason—shifts its gaze to another tight-knit group of true believers. Violent reactionaries, this clan is nominally led by handsome Nathanel (Michael Aloni), but truly run by stone-faced Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a wannabe-poet revolutionary who plans to read her kill-the-rich manifesto decrying Israeli socio-economic disparities on television after carrying out a kidnapping of wealthy billionaires at a wedding. It’s a scheme whose particulars remain shrouded in mystery for long stretches, as Lapid depicts the inner workings of the group, which also includes follower Oded and, soon thereafter, Oded’s father, who tags along in order to protect his son. Here as with the counter-terrorism team, violence intermingles freely with sexuality, as Oded pines for Shira and she for Nathanel, though more than their carnal urges, it’s their clichéd rage and hypocrisy that permeates these segments, a sense of semi-justified anger channeled by spoiled-brat kids desperately trying to play Che Guevara.
Lapid presents these two storylines as representing increasingly at-war factions of the current Israeli consciousness, and as such, they’re destined to come to a head during Policeman’s finale. Lapid’s stewardship in the lead-up to that confrontation is remarkably assured, capturing an ever-present atmosphere of clique-ish camaraderie and pent-up fury and fanaticism through intense close-ups and vivid compositions of dynamic tension. As with a shot in which Oded and his dad travel back and forth between kitchen and dining room, the two always in separate spaces that are visually divided by a wall, the film’s aesthetics convey class, gender and age schisms with subtle urgency. When the powder-keg fuse is finally lit, suspense mounts not so much with regards to the eventual outcome, as the circumstances can only lead to one real resolution, but to the way in which the various characters will reconcile their convictions and choices with the realities they face. As such, Policeman’s apex proves to be its final shot, a shared look between Shira and Yaron—she perhaps seeing the humanity in him, he trying to process that this terrorist is not an Arab but a Jew—that beautifully embodies the film’s formal and thematic fissures.