All crime films have some moral component to them. Sometimes the morality is simplistic – like when the cops are good, and the robbers are bad – but the best ones usually have complicating factor. Even Tony Montana, the antihero behind Scarface, had some justification for the way he murdered his way to the top. The Fall of the American Empire, the new crime film from French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, goes overboard with his moralizing. There is a familiar structure to the film, with the script drawing from broad archetypes, and they are in service of a message that’s more didactic than an after school special. Parts of it are clever and involving, but all that assured filmmaking devolves into a simplistic lesson that’s redundant for the type of crowd that would potentially see this kind of movie.
The characters may mostly speak French, but you know you’re watching a Canadian film from the haircuts. Alexandre Landry plays Pierre-Paul, a delivery driver with a PhD in philosophy and the mop of hair like AC Newman. When we meet him, he is lecturing his girlfriend about the nature of intelligence, arguing that genuinely intelligent people are rarely successful because they’re too bogged down by their gifts to accomplish anything (he adds that novelists/philosophers were idiots). This is the apotheosis of mansplaining, and yet Arcand – who also wrote the script – does not critique Pierre-Paul. Instead, the character is a mouthpiece for the director, to some degree or another, and his exhausting worldview is a North Star for what follows.
Pierre-Paul springs into action when a routine delivery leads him to a botched robbery. One thief escapes without the money and the other dies at Pierre-Paul’s feet, so he does the only rational thing he can: he grabs the bags of cash and tosses them into his van. This stretch is where The Fall of the American Empire is its most engaging. It becomes a crime procedural, with the amateur criminal figuring out what to do with the cash, and the cops hot on his tail (it belongs to a vicious gangster, which complicates matters). The pace is a little too loose to be like a thriller, yet Pierre-Paul and the others are not stupid, and it is undeniably fun to see how they attempt to outsmart one another. Eventually, Pierre-Paul recruits two accomplices: a high-end sex worker named Camille (Maripier Morin), and a money launderer named Sylvain (Rémy Girard) who just got out of jail.
Most of the film follows this unlikely trio as they come up with an airtight plan to make the money clean. It involves high finance, with Camille’s former client moving the cash from one shell company to another. As this happens, Pierre-Paul and the others create an under-the-table bank so that small business owners can get cash quickly without any predatory bank policies. It’s sort of like Robin Hood, except now it’s robbing the corrupt to give the poor a small business loan. This is where the film reveals its true colors: Arcand dwells on the details of unethical financial practices, justifying it because Pierre-Paul and the others are such good people. The incongruity is jarring. The film wants you to accept its complicated theft, while also accepting that Pierre-Paul and his accomplices would never betray each other. Such a conceit is outlandish – and borderline insulting – because it misunderstands human nature.
The only scenes that have any genuine sense of drama are adjacent to the central plot. There is a horrific sequence where a gangster tortures someone for information, and his method is about as painful as anything you have seen in a horror movie. There is a sub-plot where we follow Pierre-Paul’s efforts to help a homeless shelter (of course he does), but at least those characters are plausibly without guile. Arcand’s approach is to handle all this material – torture scenes, police interrogations, and shoot-outs – with casual interest and classical technique. I suspect there is a dearth of style because Arcand wants you to focus on his ideas. If the material was too exciting, you might be having too much fun.
The Fall of the American Empire is nowhere near as provocative as its title would have you believe, so the only way to appreciate it is to take everything it says at face value. By thinking about the implications of the premise, then the material will probably insult your intelligence. It certainly does not help matters that Pierre-Paul, Sylvain, and particularly Camille are so implausible that it’s almost funny. Camille starts as a clever, money-obsessed sex worker who ultimately decides to spend a significant part of her fortune on the homeless because… well, I’m not sure even Arcand could articulate why. This film offers a world where money is a corrupting force, and the only solution is to put the money in the hands of truly selfless people. There is an obvious contradiction to that idea, and Arcand’s inability to see it is what undermines his misguided efforts.