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'Policeman' A Slow-Burning, Intelligent Thriller From Israel

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It took three years, but finally the slow-burning Israeli thriller Policeman hit theaters after its festival run where it piled on plaudits. The debut from director Nadav Lapid, who already has had his follow-up feature play at Cannes last month, the film relies on the same touchstones that are common amongst the exports of Israeli film (paramilitarized state forces, terrorism) but explicitly disposes of any references to Herzl and Zionism, and its enemy combatants are all non-Arab Jews. Policeman wants to talk about what ails the state of Israel aside from its conflict with Palestine.

At first film concerns itself with anti-terrorist policeman Yaron (Yiftach Klein), an individual who seems lifted straight out of a Shin Bet recruitment video. He's a physical specimen who unreservedly tends to his pregnant wife and shares a bond with his fellow squad members that verges into the homoerotic. The men all greet each other with hugs and backslaps and for fun at a summer cookout play a game that doesn't seem to be anything beyond running into each other and tackling. Their cohesiveness is what makes their squad an efficient and perfect apparatus of the paramilitary state.

The film takes a sudden shift nearly halfway, and it turns to a homegrown group of Israeli radicals who wish to upend Israel not because of sympathy for Palestine but because of income inequality (a situation that has gotten worse in recent years in Israel). At first the change in focus to the seemingly ragtag group of idealistic if impulsive youths is disorienting, but Lapid draws a clever parallel between these two armed units. They are both propelled by ideology (one handed down by the state) and deep bonds between their members. The youngest of the radicals (Michael Mushonov) seems more propelled by lust for their femme fatale spokeswoman (Yaara Pelzig). Both are also mesmerized and turned on by the raw power of the weapons they yield.

Policeman shows a promising intelligence and a strong sense of purpose from Lapid, whose The Kindergarten Teacher also drew raves from Cannes this year. However, Lapid can let these themes and ideas get in the way of narrative in Policeman and the film can be overwhelmingly didactic. Characters can be draw threadbare (Yaron may as well be simply named "policeman" like the film's title), and the film moves at a pace so glacial that it would make the a Romanian New Wave film blush. It all culminates, though, in a climax so startling and jarring that you'll miss it in the blink of an eye. It's unsatisfying, but its sense of unease is Policeman's endgame.

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Policeman is now playing at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.