Brady Corbet has emerged as the face of millennial malaise on the strength of roles in films including Simon Killer, Clouds of Sils Maria and Melancholia, but what he really wants to do is direct — and direct he does in The Childhood of a Leader, his ambitious behind-the-camera debut. The 27-year-old novitiate has absorbed lessons from collaborators like Olivier Assayas in crafting this loose adaptation of a Jean-Paul Sartre short story, set in post–World War I France and ramping up the existential dread in an Omen-like tale of a child destined for great things.
“Great” needn't imply “good,” mind, and The Childhood of a Leader feels like a supervillain's origin story, minus the “super” — Corbet takes pains to make his characters human, all too human. He's assembled a murderers’ row of an ensemble — Bérénice Bejo as the boy's mother, Liam Cunningham as his father, Stacy Martin as his French tutor/object of his affections and Robert Pattinson in a bookending dual role sure to further disenchant Twilight fanatics — and ensures that everyone evinces as much foreboding as possible.
Newly arrived in France, the family of three is displaced both mentally and physically. The patriarch is a high-ranking bureaucrat helping Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state bring about peace and reconciliation in Versailles, which blinds him to the cold war being fought under his own roof between his German wife and son. The son's misbehavior — throwing rocks at fellow churchgoers, groping his tutor — slowly advances from boys-will-be-boys shenanigans to something more troubling.
Tom Sweet, also making his debut, plays the 7-year-old of the title, whose name is withheld until the end lest viewers rush to identify him as a specific real-world figure. Both director and star avoid the missteps so common to the bad-seed genre. A mophead in the vein of The Shining’s Danny, Sweet speaks quietly so that everyone leans in to listen, but he doesn't strike the typical sociopath-in-waiting figure — there's no cruelty in his actions, just an alienated sense of detachment.
The Childhood of a Leader is all dread all the time, and rich enough in mood that you may be inclined to forgive the familiarity of its narrative trajectory and anchoring psychology. Little of what happens will come as a surprise, but Corbet's narrative restraint coupled with his formal daring makes for a gripping experience. It's a slow burn, but the fuse attached had me holding my breath.
The film is broken into four chapters — the First Tantrum, the Second Tantrum, the Third Tantrum and a New Era — preceded by a no-joke overture from composer Scott Walker, each section carrying a subtitle that points us further in the same thematic direction. Cinematographer Lol Crawley channels Gordon “Prince of Darkness” Willis, with most interior scenes appearing to have been shot without any electrical light, while Walker's ominous, ever-present string section builds to an unhinged crescendo that keeps pace with the film's stomach-turning coda.
The boy is given to reciting the fable of the lion and the mouse, whose last line is on the nose but stirring nevertheless: Little friends may prove great friends. He himself has few, which he isn't likely to forget as he ascends to power.