24 Days recounts the grisly fate of Ilan Halimi, the young Jewish Parisian who in 2006 was kidnapped, held for ransom and tortured beyond what his body could endure. But it's not Ilan who addresses the camera at the beginning of the film. It's his mother, Ruth Halimi (Zabou Breitman).
This prologue reflects, in part, the docudrama's source: a book about the case written by Ruth with Emilie Freche. But it also announces director Alexandre Arcady's strategy. The movie is both a crisp real-life thriller and a meditation on what can be known, or is even knowable, about other people's motivations.
Ilan (Syrus Shahidi), a cellphone salesman, dutifully attends Shabbat dinner with his mother, sister and brother-in-law. When it's over, the 23-year-old wants to do something more exciting. All his friends are busy, so he calls an attractive woman who flirted with him at work. She names a place where they can meet, and Ilan hurries off. His family will not see him alive again.
Most of what follows could be described as a police procedural. But the procedures repeatedly fail. A potential suspect turns out to be an almost-victim who rejected the sort of lure that entrapped Ilan, and the wisdom of the police kidnapping experts proves not to be so wise.
The cops are initially baffled by sophisticated manipulation of phone and computer messages, and by a mastermind who seems to be in both France and the Ivory Coast. The calm demeanor of veteran police Commander Delcour (Jacques Gamblin) inspires confidence. Yet he regularly informs Ilan's family of things that are later revealed to be mistaken.
Delcour and police psychologist Brigitte Farrell (Sylvie Testud) prefer to deal with Ilan's father, Didier (Pascal Elbe), rather than Ruth, Didier's ex-wife. Her approach is more emotional, and her insistence that Ilan's kidnapping is an anti-Semitic act annoys the cops. Ilan's abductors have demanded money, so it must be a conventional crime. Even if gang boss Youssouf "Django" Fofana (Tony Harrison) does end one threatening phone call by playing a recorded verse from the Quran.
The bellicose Fofana enters just when it seems that 24 Days will focus entirely on the uneasy alliance between the Halimi family and the police. Gradually, the movie introduces Fofana's co-conspirators, whose incentives in the film's telling range from greed to malice to a simple desire to be noticed. The gangsters selected a Jewish victim because, they think, all Jews are rich. But that's the beginning, not the end, of their hateful stereotyping.
Because the case was solved, although not quickly enough to save Ilan, Arcady can assuredly detail the gang members and their acts. Yet the director (who co-scripted with Freche and Antoine Lacomblez) never attempts to explain Fofana and his confederates beyond the most basic aspects of their characters. They remain unreadable, which is both scarier and more honest than the usual crime-movie psychological analysis.
Poignantly, Ilan is also largely a mystery. We get to know his family and the cops who futilely search for him, played by an impeccable ensemble cast. But once Ilan is kidnapped, the movie depicts him as his abductors saw him: a body, a stolen prize, an inconvenience, a proxy for all their resentments.
Filmed evocatively on location — including one of the bleak Paris suburbs that inspired Matthieu Kassovitz's 1995 Hate — 24 Days takes strength from real-world specifics. But the most powerful thing about the movie is its rejection of omniscience. The crime it reconstructs is beyond understanding.