Victoria ★★★★½

“I’m not a bad guy I just… I did a bad thing.”

The “bad-people-doing-good-things” trope is one that is equal parts interesting and over used. The story of the reluctant hero is one that people (myself included) tend to gravitate towards. This can make for some truly exceptional film – one need look not further than 2013’s American Hustle for that to become abundantly clear. What we tend to shy away from, however, is the inverse of that trope. It’s hard to watch good people do bad things, and I think that’s a general rule. Victoria forces the viewer to sit through just that, spending the first act ensuring that the viewer knows that the main cast are all good people, and the second and third acts calling all of that into question. Victoria can only be described as an experience – and a markedly brutal experience at that.

When a friend recommended Victoria to me, it was described as “that movie that was done all in one shot.” Of course, this was basically just a way to spark interest in the film – which it did. That said, going in all I expected was something that was a novelty, akin to what James Cameron did with Avatar or Richard Linklater with Boyhood. This film, however, is so much more than just a novelty. It’s honestly better than it has any right to be. Before I get into that, it is worth mentioning the fact that holy shit this movie was literally shot in a single take. This isn’t necessarily unheard of, but it’s still an impressive feat, especially considering that it’s (sort of) used as a plot device. It does lend itself to some awkward shots – for instance, the camera getting handed off through windows or the cameraman getting in and out of cars.

However, there was really no other way to shoot this movie. It takes place over the course of a single night (morning, technically, since it begins at 4:00 AM), and shows everything that happens to the five characters that it follows. Victoria, for whom the movie is named, is at the center of it. A Spanish native spending three months in Germany, the movie follows her through a journey of self discovery, of sorts. When the movie begins, we meet a Victoria who is decidedly lacking direction. She’s alone, and the opening sequence sees here wandering about a club, unsure of herself. This is ultimately what leads to her falling in with the four supporting characters, with whom she forges very real bonds. The first act is used to build these character dynamics, and we see the group of five budding friends living out what could be construed as a fairly normal night.

These scenes only really work because of the chemistry between the cast. Laia Costa is excellent as Victoria, capturing a sense of isolation perfectly, which evolves throughout the course of the movie. Frederick Lau (Sonne), Franz Rogowski (Boxer), Burak Yigit (Blinker), and Max Mauff (Fuß) do a great job as well, but never quite match the scene-stealing performance provided by Costa. Fortunately, they all bounce off of one another quite well, lending the film its sense of authenticity, filling the first act with life. It’s a testament to the quality of the acting that I could follow what was going on even when English was not being used, for the most part.

Unfortunately, the characters’ situation begins to deteriorate as the film progresses. Director Sebastian Schipper and the writers do not hesitate to delve into heavy territory. Some of this is thematic, but there is a lot that is very literal, most notably the sense of loss and loneliness. The movie is very much about forging human connections, and how they lend meaning to life. This in particular lends itself to some truly emotional moments – some of which are happy, others… not so much. It may not be easy to get through, but it’s constructed masterfully. Seeing the characters warp from where they are at the end of the first act to where they are at the end of the film is heart breaking, to say the least.

Though it gets a lot right, Victoria is not without its faults. The second act feels like it drags a bit, though this could be because it’s mostly in German and I watched the film without subtitles. For the most part, not understanding German makes the movie more effective (it’s a German/English hybrid film) as it puts the viewer in the shows of the titular character. However, when that character isn’t speaking, or really interacting with the rest of the cast that much, there’s no real need for English. Regardless, two hours and fifteen minutes feels a bit long for this, and the second act is the one that feels the most bloated, simply because not much seems to happen.

The shaky cam is also quite jarring. I get why it was a necessity, but minimizing it just a little bit would have improved the experience. The film is already visceral and intense enough without the shaky camera, which does nothing except detract from the film’s effectiveness.

I could continue to harp on some of the movie’s more minor flaws (of which there are quite a few), however, being reductive is of little benefit, since Victoria is a truly amazing film, one of the best of this year. I have a fairly long list of films to get through, and have already seen a good number, but Victoria is in contention for a top five slot, easily. There’s just so much depth here in terms of themes and character development that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy about it. As the year winds down, I highly encourage everyone to give this movie a shot before you start composing “best of” lists.