Horse Thieves

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You'd expect a film with a title like "Horse Thieves" to be a Western and, despite an opening title indicating that the action takes place "Somewhere in the east ... 1810," that is pretty much what this movie is. Micha Wald, a Belgian-born director of Ukrainian descent, has chosen as his debut feature a good old-fashioned revenge picture involving horses and guns (and swords).

Marketed as a European Western, "Horse Thieves" (Voleurs de chevaux) could appeal to audiences -- despite its lack of star billing -- on its curiosity value alone. The psychology of the characters is simplistic, however, preventing the spectator from really engaging with them, and the movie lacks the intensity and universality that made the Hollywood western, in the great majority of cases, such a rewarding and cathartic experience.

The movie is structured around two sets of brothers. Jakub (Adrien Jolivet) and Vladimir (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) are bathing in a river as the film opens and see their horses being stolen right in front of them. "Cowards! Come back!" Vladimir shouts at the disappearing figures of the thieves. The movie then goes into flashback to show us how this pair of young, uneducated peasants had acquired the horses by being recruited into the Cossack army.

The action works its way forward again to the river scene whereupon the thieves -- Roman (Gregoire Collin) and Elias (Francois-Rene Dupont), a pair of orphans who live in the forest -- respond to Vladimir's challenge by turning back to attack the young Cossacks. Vladimir is killed in the ensuing kerfuffle, and Jakub sets his heart on avenging the death of his brother.

After Jakub catches up with the thieves in a tavern in a nearby village, he befriends Elias, the younger of the two, who fails to recognize him. And so when Roman, the real villain of the piece, later has Jakub flat on his back and is choking him to death, Elias intervenes to save him. Later still Elias intervenes again when it is Jakub who has Roman at his mercy. There is plenty more fighting as Wald builds to his climax with the two survivors riding off into the sunset.

Wald provides a love interest in the form of Virina (Mylene Saint-Sauveur), a local lass who has a brief fling with Elias and is warned off by Roman, but the affair leads to nothing and is not resolved. The structure -- a second flashback explains how Elias, as a child, suffered a serious leg injury for which Roman feels responsible -- is cumbersome. At some points, the spectator's willingness to suspend disbelief is put under considerable strain.

Wald cannot be faulted for his ambition, and his film is moderately entertaining, even if it doesn't quite hit the mark. It certainly is a treat visually, with Jean-Paul de Zaeytijd's cinematography doing an excellent job in passing off the rivers and forests of central France as the rugged badlands of Europe's eastern territories.

HORSE THIEVES
Versus Production, Rezo Films
Credits:
Writer-director: Micha Wald
Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Jean-Michel Rey
Director of photography: Jean-Paul de Zaeytijd
Production design: Andre Fonsny
Music
Stephan Micus, Johan Johansson, Jef Mercelis
Editor: Susana Rossberg
Cast:
Jakub: Adrien Jolivet
Roman: Gregoire Collin
Vladimir: Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet
Elias: Francois-Rene Dupont
Virina: Mylene Saint-Sauveur
Running time -- 86 minutes
No MPAA rating
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