The seamless believability. Yeah, the seamless believability of this coming of age story/gritty prison drama/crime fiction- it’s awesome. The writers sketch the growth of a newly transferred in 19 year old prisoner inside the jail from a novice to some kind of a crime kingpin over 6 years. But the only unbelievable, hero-ish, luck on his side feat he performs in the whole story is a 30 second shootout in the climax (which I forgive for the brilliant visualisation of that scene).
It is typical Hollywood crime fiction material when you think about it. But what sets this French film apart is the sheer intelligence in writing and direction. A lot of ‘connection’ scenes are omitted at the script level such that audience is forced to make those connections on their own. No moral rationalisations by any of the characters. There are no relentless, emotion building background scores. No speeches of victory or damnation. No thrust in love stories which stick out like a horse in a swimming pool. The eye for detail is not sacrificed for a compulsive break neck pace.
This is what it takes to please both the public and the critic. And also to win the Grand prix in Cannes.