The Human Zoo is the sort of film that Quentin Tarantino used to make in his early maverick days. That may explain why he’s promoting the project for writer-director-star Rie Rasmussen. He clearly recognized the film’s raw, urgent vibrancy – something all but beaten dead in this day and age – and wanted to promote it in every way he could. I’m glad he did, because we may have missed a real gem otherwise.
It also avoids the somber preachiness that its subject might otherwise incur. Rasmussen focuses on the plight of those lost in war, and the ugly circumstances they must endure in order to survive. But she doesn’t pronounce judgment on any of her subjects and she displays no political agenda other than portraying their condition as accurately as she can. She’s able to wrap a compelling crime thriller on top of it all, and keep all of the pieces together with polished ease (though on an admittedly indie budget). Considering that this is her first feature-length production – and that she wears three huge hats amid it all – the results are quite impressive.
She plays Adria, an illegal Serbian immigrant drifting amid the flotsam and jetsam of coastal France. She meets a seemingly fearless American drifter (Nick Corey), whose high-functioning sociopathy dovetails with her own wounds. Their relationship triggers memory of her time in Serbia, when she was rescued from rape and murder by a deserting soldier(Nikola Djuricko) who embarks upon a life of crime. She becomes his accomplice and mistress, an equal in many ways, but also imprisoned by his grim lifestyle. He makes no apologies for the things he has to do, and his honesty holds a strange appeal in her harsh world, but that doesn’t make her any safer.
Rasmussen presents her character as battle-scarred and strong, yet doesn’t dote on her the way a less disciplined auteur might. She makes mistakes, she isolates herself, and as her past and present slowly begin to collide, we learn just what she’s capable of. But Rasmussen never loses compassion for her either, and feels for her situation even as the uglier side becomes harder and harder to deny. The crime thriller elements hit us fast and hard, from early days in Belgrade (shot on location to solid effect) to a shocking act of vengeance that serves as the climax. Rasmussen takes pains to ground it in a real universe – where happy endings are hard to come by and human beings are bought and sold every day – that keeps it from descending into slick nihilism.
Human Zoo possesses a fair amount of Tarantino DNA, as well as chunks of Luc Besson, whose production company angeled the project. But it also carries the sensibilities of its primary auteur, who has something to say and possesses the skills to say it with heartfelt honesty. It’s all the more impressive considering that Rasmussen once looked like just another pretty face. Normally when former models claim they want to direct, everyone rolls their eyes. Rasmussen not only does it, but does so in a manner that suggests she may have a real future in it. The film has a very strong social conscience, but doesn’t convey it by beating us about the head and shoulders with it. The big studios could learn or thing or two from that approach, especially at the end of the year when we’re stuffed silly with pretentious awards bait. Human Zoo has the chops to compete with them, but also to give action fans a dearly-needed jolt of adrenaline to send them into the holidays. Keep an eye out for it; it won’t let you down.