The man, the myth, the motherfucker: Olivier Assayas' Carlos is about a terrorist who, despite not being terribly good at his job, wins international notoriety and beds hot radical chicks. In the movie's three parts (totaling five and a half hours), the imperious, Pierre Cardin–clad bomber joins forces with Palestinians in his early 20s, turns the mindboggling 1975 OPEC kidnappings into a cash grab, and finally fades into African exile — still spouting ideology that tends to support doing just what he wants.
Who is this guy? The prevailing portrait of Carlos the Jackal is of a brash, stylish killer who thumbed his nose at governments and strutted for the media. At the same time, what really drove the nation-hopping "revolutionary" remains a bit of a mystery. Assayas' film chronicles his deadly missions, terror-networking, and chest-thumping with a behavioral focus that bears out (without pat flashbacks) the backstory of a man born into radicalism but unwilling to embrace its screw-the-bourgeoisie asceticism.
"Eventually, he became his own cause," says Édgar Ramírez, who portrays Carlos (born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) with an unstinting self-assurance that grounds the film's massive runtime. Ramírez, a one-time journalism major who spoke with Carlos' family and associates to research his role, points out that the eventual terrorist's worldview started with Marxist childhood tutors and a "hard-line" lawyer father who wanted his son "to carry out the revolution he couldn't."
The Venezuelan-born actor's family, in fact, comes from the same Colombia-bordering state as Carlos' ("There were a lot of Ramírezes in my class"). "He had in him this very Latin American machismo," Ramírez says of the terrorist's headstrong refusal to give up the good life, which many of his gun-toting colleagues professed to scorn. "That is something that other people would do. Part of the [revolution's] ideology was to create this new man, to renounce and give up all your prior convictions and conceptions of the world. And he would not change that even in the name of the revolution."
Ramírez' feel for the character is part of what drove Assayas (demonlover, Boarding Gate, Summer Hours) to cast him, in addition to a "charisma and powerful commanding presence" that avoid caricature and aggrandizement while understanding that "Carlos" was a character, a construct.
"Ilich is someone who has different lives and becomes a different person depending on the situation," Assayas says. "When he does the OPEC operation, he dresses up as Che Guevara — it's not his look, he looks ridiculous, he's more of a sharp dresser. He creates the look of the revolutionary of that time."
The terrorism of the era, as depicted in the film, is distinct from today's homicidal martyrdom. "The struggle at that time was defined by the Cold War, which was both atheist and internationalist, so the militants saw themselves as soldiers of a cause," Assayas says, explaining Carlos' opposition to suicide runs that would cut that service short.
Assayas scored this dense historical account of murder and terror with the melancholy shivers and dark stabs of post-punk — an unlikely musical choice. But a good one: "Dreams Never End," the first song on New Order's debut album after Joy Division bandmate Ian Curtis' suicide, proves daringly suited to Carlos' early transitional rise. Assayas was drawn to "the notion of time passing, of the energy of the music" of the '80s. (That very nearly led to an all-Feelies soundtrack, except "the Feelies are uncomfortable with your using their music in a film about terrorism.") And in fact, Carlos' my-way-or-the-highway prima donna attitude, appetite for fame, and oblivious decline echo the now-clichéd arc of a celebrity band and its temperamental frontman. "You have the groupies, the buses, the planes, the alcohol — you have everything," Ramírez says. (Assayas admits as much: "I know, I know, I played with the analogy.")
All of which brings the entire, massively obscene fiasco of Carlos' murderous run back to the machismo of the man, who in real life issued complaints to Assayas from a French prison, demanding final cut on the film. Carlos doesn't get as far as that prison. The movie's fluidly choreographed intrigues and prideful speeches collapse with a whimper as the Jackal is arrested after his most delicate operation yet, at a urologist's office. "It's stuff you can't invent," Assayas says.