Originally released in France in 2000 under the title Les Rivières Pourpres, The Crimson Rivers is a solid but head-scratching piece of cinema that takes inspiration from films like Seven and The Boys from Brazil, mixing elements of Nazi eugenics and horrific mutilation and experimentation with more conventional police procedurals and action sequences. The story comes from the French novel Les Rivières Pourpres by Jean-Christophe Grange, who co-wrote the movie script.
The story centers on two very different detectives (much like those in Seven). Jean Reno plays Commissaire Principal Pierre Niemans, a veteran inspector from Paris who has attained a legendary reputation among the rank-and-file police flatfoots. Niemans is sent to the small, self-sufficient university town of Guernon, which is located close to the French Alps. Niemans is there to investigate the horrific murder of a man found on a high cliff face. Not only is the victim’s location strange, the murder itself is cause for great alarm. The victim’s body was horribly mutilated, his hands and eyes removed and his body riddled with deep scars. His eyes are molded shut—they are leaking acid rain that was trapped in the ice many years ago.
While Niemans is working on this conundrum, Lieutenant de Police Max Kerkerian (played by Vincent Cassel) is the nearby town of Sarzac. Kerkerian is investigating the desecration of a young girl’s grave. This young girl, her name Judith Herault, died in 1982 when she was supposedly run over by a semi-trailer. As Kerkerian begins to investigate, he discovers that the mother (now interned at a convent, where she has taken a vow of darkness) believes that her daughter was killed by demons. When Kerkerian discusses the now 20-year-old murder, he sees for himself that the mother is hopelessly blind.
The two stories intertwine and Niemans and Kerkerian form an unsteady alliance. Both men realize that Judith Herault is the key suspect in both the murder and the desecration, but as the men begin to peel away the onion, they come to discover that the university itself has harbored a horrifying secret, one involving Nazi eugenics, decades of incest, baby swapping, murder, and a desperate attempt to mold physical prowess with intellectual superiority, no matter the cost.
The core of the plot lies within its title. During one key sequence, Niemans learns about the thesis that the university’s librarian labored over for many years. The key to this thesis: “We are the masters. We are the slaves. We are everywhere. We are nowhere. We control the crimson rivers.”
The “crimson rivers” are the bloodlines. And the masters/slaves are the university elite, who practice Nazi eugenics in secrecy (everywhere but nowhere) in the hopes of creating a master race. Now, the race has nothing to do with Arians or the like but rather a perfect amalgamation of physical and mental prowess.
The Crimson Rivers suffers from a complicated plot, one in which director Mathieu Kassovitz (Gothika and Babylon A.D.) purposely removed scenes that explained key elements of the plot, which he deemed as boring. Thus, the film seems to meander from sequence to sequence, and although interested viewers can pick up the overall elements of the plot, the role that Judith Herault plays in the story is difficult to fully understand. Moreover, there are several plot twists along the way that further complicate the movie, making the end result something of an enigma.
Despite the shortcomings related to the plot and direction, The Crimson Rivers remains an effective movie, one that fans of psychological thrillers and light horror are sure to find engrossing and somewhat satisfying. Leads Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel take command of every scene they inhabit and are a joy to watch. The combination of police puzzle and sizzling action sequences works well, and even the martial-arts sequences are grounded enough in reality to make them interesting and fun to watch.
Fans of psychological thrillers, police procedurals in which the police must contend with a mastermind, and stories involving Nazi experimentation and secret societies will all find much to like in The Crimson Rivers. The story may be complicated and leave too many loose ends, but the movie as a whole will keep you interested and entertained from beginning to end.