Written by Jason Pirodsky
Robert Sedláček´s intense drama Pravidla lži (English title: ‘Rules of Lies’) absolutely seethes with tension, but is somewhat mislabeled as a thriller; at its core, it offers few actual thrills. Still, it moves at a quick pace and remains compelling enough throughout for us to forgive its weaknesses. Outstanding cast, excellent performances all around (despite limited screen time for some) help to keep things moving. Isolated location and multi-character drama creates a Twelve Angry Men-like atmosphere; only unnecessary flashback scenes and a disappointing ending deflate it.
Twelve recovering drug addicts attempt to clean themselves up at a makeshift rehab center – a remote farmhouse in the middle of the Czech countryside. Under the guidance of three counselors, they form a self-sustaining community bound by rules – no outbursts of anger, no sexual relationships, etc. Anyone who breaks the rules or disrupts the balance in the community will be thrown out.
But what could have been an episode of “Big Brother” is instead directed so fluidly that the audience is glued to the screen throughout. We begin as a new member – Roman (David Švehlík) – is introduced to the community, and forced to take a dip in a freezing lake; “we all had to do it,” he is told. Almost immediately he is menaced by Milan (Jiří Langmajer), who confronts him in the shower and intimidates him in group therapy sessions. There is apparently some past history between the two – “you talk too much”, Milan tells him – though Roman doesn´t seem to remember much. Or is he only acting?
While mystery surrounds Roman and Milan, each of the other characters has their own history to deal with. Karel (David Novotný) has a daughter he hasn´t seen in fourteen years, Filip (Jan Budař) has been in and out of prison for a number of years, Martin (Jaroslav Plesl) has attempted suicide multiple times, etc. Two main plot points emerge, which intertwine with each other late in the film. There´s a possible romance between Milan and one of the female members of the group – Jolana (Petra Jungmanová) – which has been quietly tolerated but causes problems once it is officially brought up in one of group sessions: all members of the group must vote and approve of the relationship, otherwise one of them will be thrown out of the community.
There´s also a startling revelation by Tom (Igor Chmela), a hardcore junkie whose personal probems exceed many other members of the group. His friend Daša overdosed next to him at a club while he was strung out. But the arrival of Roman to the group has stirred some memories – Tom remembers something, he witnessed Daša being murdered. He fingers two possible suspects – Roman, who he knows little about, and Milan, who was Daša´s boyfriend. But can Tom be trusted? He doesn´t seem to trust himself.
One of the biggest themes here is lying – most of the film, and most of the tension within, is based on dialogue; but who do we trust? Sedláček has a lot fun with this as both a writer and director; the best scenes in the film maintain tension because of what the audience suspects might happen, and not because of what actually does. When a young girl is placed alone in a room with a recovering drug addict and ex-convict, Sedláček knows what may lurk in the minds of viewers and directs with a coy apprehension, filling the scene with off-kilter dialogue and awkward silences. When nothing actually happens we breathe a sigh of relief – even though, in all honesty, there wasn´t there in the first place. Much of the film reflects this: so much tension is built up between these characters that we feel it could all explode at any moment; even a laid-back snowball fight seems laced with menacing undertones.
Which makes the ending all the more disappointing, as the tension is deflated by ambiguity rather than going out with a bang. While it doesn´t ruin the film, and the director deserves points for sticking to his original ideas rather than turning to Hollywood clichés, it´s definitely a letdown.
Technical credits are solid across the board; hand-held camerawork and pulsating music serve the film well – though occasional outbursts of heavy metal seem out of place. Acting is also uniformly excellent, with Jiří Langmajer deserving special mention for the terrifically menacing Milan.
Now playing with English subtitles at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům.
Jason Pirodsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org