In the famous last scene of The Untouchables, Eliot Ness, the straight-arrow federal agent tasked with hunting down Al Capone, is asked what he’ll do if Prohibition gets repealed. “I think I’ll have a drink,” he responds. Point being, Ness doesn’t complicate his job by questioning the letter of the law; whatever society dictates through its lawmakers, he’s duty-bound to carry out those rules. That rigid fidelity would make Ness the villain in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective, a clever, exceedingly wonky procedural about a undercover cop (Dragos Bucur) who quietly refuses to do what he’s told. He isn’t so willfully blinded to the practical realities of applying the law; in his latest case, he tracks a guilty man knowing full well that his time would be wildly disproportionate to the crime.
Set in the depressed city of Vasliu in post-Communist Romania, Police, Adjective is a thriller about semantics—which is to say, not much of a thriller at all, but a thorough deconstruction of the genre and of language itself. Inevitably, it’s dryyyyy, but also mesmerizing in the way Porumboiu (12:08 East Of Bucharest) slowly unfurls the forces Bucur is up against in a country that refuses, at least temporarily, to follow the lead of more progressive European nations. As Bucur follows his mark (Radu Costin) through mundane routine, he learns enough to know the young man is smoking weed and perhaps selling a little on the side, but he’s strictly small-time. Keenly aware that arrest would destroy Costin’s life, Bucur uses every method at his disposal to prolong his simple investigation, but when the police captain (Vlad Ivanov, the black-market abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days) starts asking questions, Bucur’s stalling tactics hit a wall.
Police, Adjective has to be one of the harder sells in recent distribution history: Its most exciting scene features characters reading the dictionary out loud. Yet it is an exciting scene, because it lays out in stark, unambiguous terms the inflexible words Bucur has been bucking against so determinedly. Throughout the film, Porumboiu plays ingeniously with language, from the deliberate cloudiness of Bucur’s surveillance reports to an unexpectedly playful scene where he picks apart the lyrics to his wife’s favorite pop song. Much like Eliot Ness, Bucur lives at a time when the law could change tomorrow, but his conscience leads him to embrace loopholes and uncertainties wherever he can find them.