Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing charted racial tensions over a single day in a heat wave-stricken New York City neighborhood. His was a slow burner, a subtle but constant escalation that eventually bubbled over into a murder and a small-scale riot. Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (meaning "Hate") ups the ante; it opens with a riot. A visceral, incisive and, ultimately, disturbingly prescient look at how a bad situation can, somehow, always get worse, La Haine makes the idea-mongering of American History X look about as insightful as Paul Haggis' Crash.
The director takes us to an area of Paris so close and yet so far removed from the glamor or even the hip artistry of the city. He heads to the city's banlieues, run-down suburbs filled with high unemployment, drop-out rates and immigrant populations. The decrepit, sparse buildings look even worse in the riot's aftermath, inspiring only more hatred in the three protagonists. Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a Jew, rages against the police as Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) tries to calm him down. They visit Hubert (Hubert Koundé), an Afro-French boxer, at his gym, which has been ruined by fires. Compared to Vinz, Hubert accepts this with a certain sense of resignation, though he suspects that Vinz was so caught up in the action the previous night that he might have helped burn the place.
Kassovitz builds the story slowly, through seemingly arbitrary and disconnected threads: the three are concerned for their friend, Abdel, who was injured in the riot and lies in a coma. Other residents mumble rumors that a cop lost his gun in the riot, and whoever finds it can even the odds against the armed cops. As the riot destroyed so many of the denizens' meager possessions, many charge exorbitant sums for the most banal services, a laughable ploy as everyone else is just as poor. It puts people on edge, and the increased police scrutiny brought on by the riot only turns up the heat.
Naturally, each character reacts to these harsh circumstances in different ways. Vinz, who idolizes Travis Bickle and reenacts the "You talkin' to me" speech in a mirror to convince himself of his hardness, loses himself in anti-police hatred. He discovers the lost revolver and vows to use it if Abdel dies. Hubert, on the other hand, has a more measured acceptance of the hand fate dealt him. He regards Vinz's spiral into self-annihilation with sadness a wisdom beyond his years. He doesn't like ghetto life, but he knows that violence and antagonism will not break the cycle. An intermediary between the two, Saïd simply treads water, oblivious to (or consciously suppressing) larger issues facing him, he rants about cops but is far more concerned with getting laid than getting justice.
Kassovitz won the Best Director Prize at Cannes, and his work is indeed remarkable. His mise-en-scène is well-arranged but intentionally disorienting, as he leaps in and out of the characters heads change the POV briefly before leaping back out again as quickly as he shifted gears. For all the severity of the material, Kassovitz offers a wry gag here and there: in one of the first shots, he pans over a exaggerated line of cops monitoring the banlieue, only to finally reach the end to show Saïd tagging their vehicle with graffiti right under their noses. He also inserts random asides where wholly inconsequential people tell long-winded stories to the protagonists. These stories can involve a description of a Candid Camera episode or an old man's bizarre reminiscence of his time freighthopping, but they ultimately comment on the narrative, building tension through their lengths and reflecting on the mounting tension and doom of the story.
La Haine ends on a note about as shocking as anything else that came before it, with one of the trio dead by cop and another ready to shoot the officer who did it. The screen cuts to black, and a single gunshot is heard. Who fired it? It doesn't really matter; it's merely the action that will start the whole thing over again. If the cop died, the cops and the people outside the ghetto will condemn the residents as thugs. If it was the ghetto rat, the other residents will only stir further. Either way, it means more cops and more riots in the future.
Much ado has been made in other reviews of the multiracial cast, but the deep and distressing truth of Saïd, Vinz and Hubert is that, regardless of their families' backgrounds, are all 100% French. That fact makes it all the more shocking and depressing when the boys catch a train into Paris' city limits and step off looking as bewildered as tourists. Just as the majority of the audience looked upon this dark, unseen side of France, so too do these men feel lost and unsettled when exposed to a place they don't know. The tragedy is that the area that bemuses the protagonists is the entire world outside their own.