This dour 16th-Century-set revenge thriller (adapted from a novel by Heinrich von Kleist) suffers from the formal constraints it places on itself. Director Arnaud des Pallières is seemingly aiming for dirty realism, late-Medieval style. That means he uses natural light wherever possible and real locations (the wetter and muddier the better) rather than studio sets. He largely eschews music and shies away from primary colours, aiming instead for a dark, desaturated look. The action sequences are shot in surprisingly murky fashion.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Kohlhaas, a horse dealer who is swindled by a young nobleman. When he tries to sue, his case is dismissed. His beloved wife intercedes on his behalf with the Princess, but she is murdered – and Kohlhaas responds by leading a vengeful and bloody revolt.
In its own rugged way, the film is beautifully shot. It is full of poetic imagery of horses galloping through forests and across barren landscapes. There is an intriguing interlude when a theologian (Denis Lavant) accosts Kohlhaas and accuses him of vanity and of recklessly leading his impoverished followers to their doom. Mikkelsen is in brooding, taciturn form as the fatalistic hero. He knows that his own vengeful deeds will themselves be punished, even if his stolen horses are returned.
The plot here is similar to that of many full-blooded revenge westerns, but there is something alienating about the solemnity and detachment of the storytelling.