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‘Ghost Trail’ Review: A Tense, Terrifically Acted Thriller About Syrian Exiles in France

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A stirring, expertly judged thriller powered by a pair of blazing performances, Ghost Trail (Les Fantômes) kicks off Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar in first-rate form.

Revolving around a Syrian exile tracking down his former torturer in France, French director Jonathan Millet’s feature-length fiction debut is a work of visceral intensity and formidable control, pulling you into a tight grip and holding you there. The cat-and-mouse premise and brisk, nerve-jangling execution are familiar from numerous other geopolitically timely spy/manhunt tales on big and small screens. But if Ghost Trail doesn’t necessarily buzz with novelty, it boasts a bracing sense of craftsmanship and purpose — of “understanding the assignment,” as the kids might say — both behind and in front of the camera.

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Ghost Trail

The Bottom Line A gripping manhunt movie that packs a stealthy wallop.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Cast: Adam Bessa, Tawfeek Barhom, Julia Franz Richter, Hala Rajab, Shafiqa El Till
Director/screenwriter: Jonathan Millet
1 hour 45 minutes

Working from a screenplay (“inspired by true events”) co-written with Florence Rochat, Millet displays a shrewd grasp of paranoid-thriller mechanics: fluid camerawork, crisp cutting, propulsive music, anxiety-spiking sound design. He also has a refreshing preference for intimacy and clarity over distancing stylistic or narrative fussiness. Given how often these movies’ plot convolutions make us feel like Winona Ryder in the SAG Awards meme, Ghost Trail’s straightforwardness is a boon — evidence that the writer-director is interested in the protagonist’s experience as something more than a vessel for instant genre gratifications. One of the satisfactions of the film is indeed how it lets us focus on the story’s stakes rather than indecipherable double-crosses or unconnectable dots.  

Best of all are the two fascinatingly matched feats of acting at the movie’s center: the stealthy emotional wallop delivered by French-Tunisian lead Adam Bessa (Extraction) and a spine-chilling supporting turn from Tawfeek Barhom (the Palestinian star of Cairo Conspiracy). Ghost Trail should give their profiles, and Millet’s, a robust international boost.

We first meet Hamid (Bessa) in 2014 as Syrian soldiers dump him in the desert, bruised and limping, along with a truckload of other men. The film then jumps forward two years, finding Hamid on a construction job in Strasbourg (northeastern France) as he approaches co-workers with a blurry photo of another Syrian he’s trying to locate.

The film sketches in the details of Hamid’s life, helping us to piece together his past and present. He lives in a sparsely appointed studio, its drab wallpaper covered with scribbled notes, where he watches news reports describing attacks by the Syrian government on its own people. Via video calls to his mother — currently in a refugee camp in Beirut — and sessions with civil servants helping him establish residency in France, we learn he was a literature professor in Aleppo and was imprisoned for political dissidence. While he was in jail, his wife and young daughter were killed in a bombing.

Hamid is now part of an underground network of Syrians trailing fugitive henchmen of the Assad regime around Europe and turning them over to local authorities to be arrested and tried. His newest target, as confirmed by his handler (Julia Franz Richter), is Sami Hanna, aka Harfaz: the very man who administered Hamid’s brutal weekly beating, as well as that of other civilian detainees, in Sednaya Prison.

Early in his search, Hamid strikes up a tentative friendship with fellow refugee Yara (a very fine Hala Rajab), who studied medicine back in Syria but runs a tailoring shop in Strasbourg. At once wary and tinged with inchoate yearning, their conversations convey the mistrust and disconnectedness — that additional level of isolation — within certain exiled communities. “Even here we have to be suspicious,” Yara tells Hamid. “You never know who’s on which side.”

Yara helps Hamid trace Harfaz (Barhom) to the local university, where he’s a graduate student in chemistry. The catch, of course, is that Hamid can’t identify his target with 100-percent certainty, because he’s never actually laid eyes on him; he was blindfolded during the beatings. Moreover, when the unit runs a background check using the name Hamid spots on Harfaz’s ID card — Hassan Al Rammah — the report points to an individual on file as an enemy of the Assad regime.

Still, Hamid feels deep in his gut that the slim, bespectacled scholar hunched over his books in the library is the monster who left him with a map of scars splayed across his back, not to mention psychological wounds that may never heal. Other members of the cell accuse him of “wishful thinking,” but Hamid is sure that the voice and even the smell of the man he’s been following belong to his torturer.

Millet knows how to crank up the tension, assisted by Yuksek’s churning electro-infused score and the deft layering of ambient campus noise — whispers in the hallway, chairs creaking, the shuffling of papers — with Hamid’s own throbbing heartbeat. The filmmaker and DP Olivier Boonjing shoot Bessa up close as Hamid spies on his suspect and listens to recordings of victim testimonies; we see the glistening of sweat on his skin and the tightening of his jaw, hear his breathing grow ragged.

Yet Millet doesn’t linger or ogle, pulling us into the character’s trauma-ravaged headspace in a way that feels sympathetic, never sensationalistic. Ghost Trail makes it look easy, but the movie walks a tricky line: It’s a juicy piece of entertainment that also engages sincerely with its painful, topical subject matter.

With dreamy, almond-shaped eyes and high-cut cheekbones, Bessa has a soulful movie-star magnetism that he modulates flawlessly here. The actor shows us both the cracks of acute panic and the deeper hollows of despair, as well as an abiding gentleness, beneath Hamid’s practiced stoicism. It’s a deceptively economical, richly affecting performance.

For the first half of the film, we see Harfaz through Hamid’s furtive POV, from behind or a distance, at odd angles or around corners. When the two at last come face-to-face, sitting across from each other over a canteen meal, it’s a hushed showstopper of a scene — a mental tug-of-war in which each question posed and banality exchanged is freighted with terrifying unspoken meaning.

Alternating teasing warmth and coded menace, Harfaz doesn’t exude straight-up evil, conjuring a far more unsettling mix of bitter disillusionment, guilt, loneliness and contained rage. Barhom is masterful, turning the simple act of chewing food into something somehow both sinister and vulnerable, jaws, teeth and salivary glands working in queasy concert.

True to its intrigue of hidden agendas and unexpressed anguish, Ghost Trail is notable for its discretion — its refusal to spell out or belabor character backstories, politics, historical contexts or themes. (The light touch is especially welcome when it comes to the grieving-parent/spouse thread, a crutch of contemporary cinema.) The film isn’t at all self-consciously spare or cryptic, though; it feels just full enough.

That’s thanks, in part, to Millet’s willingness to slow things down, to capture fleeting instances of sensuality, beauty or connection: cardamom seeds being placed in a teapot; Yara’s fingers resting gingerly on Hamid’s bare stomach as she dresses his wound; a spoonful of honey sampled at a Christmas market.

In one surprising scene, Harfaz offers Hamid ghraybe (Middle Eastern butter cookies) as they take a study break on a secluded campus lawn. At first, the situation feels fraught with danger — is this an ambush? But after Harfaz picks one of the pastries and takes a bite, Hamid does the same. “Good?” Harfaz checks with Hamid to see if he likes it. A long shot shows them savoring this taste of home side by side, surrounded by tall grasses and flowers, their wordlessness punctuated only by the sounds of birds and a light breeze.

It’s an uncomfortably lovely moment, as the horror of what these two men are to each other is eclipsed by something shared and ineffable: nostalgia for a lost motherland. That kind of human and moral intricacy distinguishes Ghost Trail, which finally leaves a sting of sorrow that’s hard to see coming, and harder to shake.  

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