★★★★☆

Adapted from Colin Niel’s 2017 novel Seules les bêtes, German director Dominik Moll’s Only the Animals is a grippingly-realised mystery-thriller. Centring around the apparent murder of Evelyne Ducat (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and the five people connected by her death, Moll spins a yarn of deceit, ferocious attachment and guilt.

Though it is primarily set in a handful of isolated locations in rural France, Only the Animals opens in the Ivory Coast town of Abidjan, tracking a live goat strapped to the back of a man as he makes his way through the busy streets to a city apartment. The image is faintly absurd, but imbued with an encroaching darkness as the man approaches his destination, presumably where the goat will be slaughtered for God only knows what purpose.

Left dangling, we will eventually pick up this thread, but for now we are whisked away to the frozen countryside of south France in midwinter as a woman’s car snakes its way through the icy hills. As she passes a car on the side of the road, time slows slightly to take in her realisation that it has been abandoned in a shot that is strongly reminiscent of that other brilliant, snow-bound thriller, Fargo. The film’s tone, too – striking a level balance between character study, mystery and black comedy – is consistently Coen-esque, while the revelatory, nonlinear narrative structure puts one in mind of Christopher Nolan, though with a humanity and compassion that that director often lacks.

To say much more about the plot would spoil the delicious fun of it – but the real magic is in the way Moll weaves human drama through the schematic satisfaction of watching the puzzle pieces gradually fall into place. Chief among this drama is Armand (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin), the Abidjanian youth who earns his crust scamming doofuses with online honey traps. His online alter-ego, the beautiful, buxom ‘Amandine’ quickly hooks one of the main characters, before he reels them in with promises to visit but no funds to travel. Spending his money lavishly in the clubs while sharing his meagre room with his bros, Only the Animals finds empathy where other films might only have seen a plot device, his scheming capturing the essence of the conflict at the heart of this human domino rally.

The one weak point is, perhaps, an early red herring, who unlike Armand seems to exist only to provide a dead end in the film’s narrative maze. An attempt at psychology involving the character’s mother is one of the few moments where Moll resorts to cliché. Nevertheless, Only the Animals remains a highly satisfying and gripping thriller that, like the best of them, finds the time to properly contemplate the depths of its dominoes as they are arranged before the capricious hand of chance gleefully knocks them down, one by one.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm