In the seventh and final season of FX’s bleak, gritty LAPD drama The Shield, which aired in 2008, the compost heap of the antiheroic Strike Team’s recklessness, greed, and irrational overconfidence reached a critical mass, and viewers were treated to the slow, horrifying disintegration of everything Vic Mackey and company once held to be dear and true. That kind of tailspin is compressed, give or take a few moral and ethical bulwarks, into 103 minutes in Frédéric Jardin’s nonstop, claustrophobic, and highly volatile Sleepless Night, which harks back to the tough-minded crime films of Phil Karlson (whose 99 River Street unravels a similar, desperate yarn) and André de Toth (Crime Wave in particular), while also paying homage to Jardin’s own countrymen, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Audiard.
Something else that Sleepless Night has in common with The Shield—something, that is, that sets both of them apart from the pack—is that it works from the assumption that audiences are far less interested in the calibration of a character’s moral compass than in how heroes or antiheroes choose to act under stressful circumstances. Sleepless Night opens with a series of inciting incidents, first establishing, then contradicting, then contradicting again, the do-gooder status of Paris cop Vincent (French action star Tomer Sisley). As he’s drawn into a quagmire of drug kingpins and dirty cops, questions of what’s right and what’s necessary are deliberately confused, and the film becomes a portrait of what a man becomes when it seems as if everything in his life (his family, his career, his hide) is teetering on the edge of a very deep chasm. Why do so many films seem to think that we, the audience, will be lost in a fog if a hero’s actions aren’t constantly measured against a preset, moral baseline? A deeper sense of identification is found in Sleepless Night’s diagram of its characters’ baser instincts: self-preservation, greed, pride, and a fundamental sense of reality.
With the opening heist, Jardin’s shooting style seems, paradoxically, anonymous, and ostentatious at the same time—such is the state of affairs in a cinematic world that’s already had its eyelashes singed off by Paul Greengrass and Len Wiseman. Over the course of the film, Jardin’s style doesn’t exactly change gears, nor does he always take the high road, in terms of eschewing elaborate stunt shots (the most notorious being a long take that travels across a nightclub ceiling crawlspace from the lady’s bathroom to the men’s), but after a few turns in the modest narrative, an unlikely sense of structural resilience begins to emerge.
The recent and frequently ballyhooed concept of “chaos cinema”—at best an appreciation for valid new aesthetic models, at worst a Stockholm Syndrome-like acceptance that certain modes of shitty filmmaking are here to stay—comes out smelling fresh here. Sloppiness is Sleepless Night’s reigning principle, both thematically and visually, but it’s a deceptive sloppiness, held together by Jardin’s steady, disciplined hand, keeping a laser focus trained on the dueling sensations of equilibrium and volatility. Easily forgiven of a few harebrained schemes (flour, seriously?) and implausible coincidences, Sleepless Night repays the viewer who’s maybe a little weary of the current wave of “pure genre” in cinema, plunging us deep inside a world where no amount of police authority, guns, or muscle can get something done if the universe—or a massive, tumultuous night club—decides otherwise.