Spy movies come preloaded with expectations, promising many scenes of shadowy people doing shadowy things. The historical thriller Anthropoid thankfully knows the trappings of its genre well, telling a compelling, unexpectedly moving story that’s rife with secret knocks, signal mirrors, and hastily decoded messages.
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Based on true events (the ungainly mouthful of a title is explained early), the plot follows two soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who air-drop into Czechoslovakia in 1941 with orders to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the aptly nicknamed Butcher of Prague. As they make contact with the local resistance and attempt to shadow their target’s movements, they must also come to grips with the fact that their various plans are distinctly lacking in exit strategies.
Director/cowriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis (previously responsible for the oddball SIFF favorite Cashback) is on ferocious point from the opening titles, establishing the often conflicting personalities of his leads through their early actions and quickly conveying the virtual impossibility of their mission.
While his method of keeping the camera in near constant motion may crimp the old-fashioned feel a bit, it does successfully convey a world where danger could come at any time, from any angle. The narrative’s steadily tightening screws are aided mightily by solid performances from Dornan, Toby Jones, Anna Geislerová, and especially Murphy, whose unearthly eyes can seemingly phase from remorseless to sorrowful without blinking.
Both of Murphy’s modes come into ample play during Anthropoid’s final act, which switches from covert skullduggery to become a rather marvelously grim action picture, featuring desperate strategies, seemingly insurmountable odds, and the most bullet-desecrated church since John Woo’s The Killer. Doing justice to its subjects, Ellis’s smart, respectful throwback makes for a striking depiction and examination of heroism. It packs a wallop, whether you know how it turns out or not.