One of the nice things about being alive at this point in history is that we all pretty much agree on the basic concepts of human rights and the idea that every human life has value. But it wasn't always so. Take, for example, Eastern Europe in 1810, when Cossacks stormed across the countryside grabbing territory and brutally smiting down innocent civilians under the vaguest of religious and political pretexts.
In the Arms of My Enemy drops us into this wet, cold, poverty-stricken environment with great effectiveness. You can almost feel yourself getting muddy as you watch. A story of two sets of brothers who collide with disastrous results, it's violent and relentlessly depressing but ultimately sort of uplifting. It's quite a ride.
Jakub (Adrien Jolivet) and Vladimir (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) are two brothers who roam the countryside in rags scavenging food when they can. Approached by Cossacks who are looking for new recruits, Jakub is immediately attracted by their offer of a warm place to sleep. The younger and more fragile Vladimir is skeptical, but he goes along, and soon they find themselves in a sadistic Cossack boot camp, where Jakub proves his skill as a horseman while Vladimir gets gang-raped by the other recruits. Forced to defend his brother, Jakub is soon locked in the hole, and both brothers begin a downward spiral that accelerates when they participate in a gruesome Cossack raid on a village that leaves dozens of women and children dead.
Across the valley, Roman (Grégoire Colin) and his younger brother Elias (François-René Dupont) are making a sort of living as horse thieves. Roman is a big tough guy, while the much younger and lame Elias, a sort of junior horse whisperer, needs constant protection. Luckily, they live in a literal hole in the ground and are safe until the day they steal Jakub and Vladimir's horses, and all hell breaks loose. What to this point has been a Cossack slice-of-life film becomes a wild revenge flick, with lots of thuggish hand-to-hand fighting and rolling around in the chilly muck.
Production values are high throughout; the film looks great as has its mise en scene nailed perfectly. All the performances are excellent, and in the end we're rewarded with some surprising emotional closure that makes the whole ugly adventure worth it. In fact, the worst thing about the movie is its marketing. Distributed by gay-friendly Picture This Entertainment, it's been window-dressed as some sort of gay historical epic because several buff characters happen to run around with no shirts on. This does the film a disservice. Heteros have nothing to fear here. This is a story of brotherly love, not man-on-man love.
Aka Voleurs de chevaux.
Never bring a scimitar to a musket fight.