The framing device used in Night of the Kings is a popular one. The story takes place in a bleaker than bleak environment—a prison in the Ivory Coast jungle controlled by its prisoners—but through the magic of storytelling, we’re transported to fantastical lands harboring kings, queens, and supernatural forces. Naturally, all the stories either tie into the narrator’s backstory or mirror his prison environment. Writer-director Philippe Lacôte leans hard into these proven cliches, but what twists he serves up to the formula are not only fresh, but come pretty close to breaking and reinventing the cliché itself.
The film stars a pickpocket (Koné Bakary) on his first days in the prison, where the seemingly self-elected ruler, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), names him the Roman, or storyteller, for the forthcoming Red Moon. His role is met with fear, as the young prisoners target him for quasi-violent hazing before the ceremony he’s suddenly supposed to lead cements his fate.
It’s widely known around the prison that the Roman is killed once dusk approaches and he’s finished telling his story. The writing appears to be on the wall for the film’s excellent first half hour, building tension for Roman’s life while smartly fleshing out the prison itself as turf that is up for grabs the very same night. Blackbeard’s protégé, Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), asks his dying mentor to be his successor, while another inmate called Half-Mad (Digbeu Jean Cyrille) has quietly amassed a strong following. On the sidelines watching the whole array unfold is Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté, giving the most electric turn of the film), a trans woman subject to a demeaning mix of hate and yearning from her fellow inmates. She’s an exciting character to watch, and Tobie Marier Robitaille’s cinematography is most affectionate and sultry when following her, embracing her form for what she desires it to be (albeit while following a presumably cisgender male actor).
As the film progresses with Roman’s story, some of these pieces on the board grow in the background, while other’s roles are eliminated, sometimes to advance the story, other times because the script loses sight of what to do with them (most notably Lass in the last half hour). At the same time, the tone finds an uneven middle ground between the darkness of the prison and the fantasy of Roman’s yarns. An important piece of Night of the Kings is how Roman starts to enchant the crowd, potentially putting some of them on his side when the Red Moon is over. While there are some uplifting moments here, eventually it feels as if the crowd is in the palm of Roman’s hand, and the script nor the stories he’s actually telling in the film earn that emotional payoff. It feels on the nose for this overused narrative device.
But then the ways Night of the Kings intends to bend the cliché to its will start to make themselves apparent. The structure of the stories is a narrative mess on Roman’s behalf, but for the script, it creates a more natural presentation that rivetingly illustrates a character pulling from every corner of his mind and memories to save his own life. This subversion of the usual trope adds weight to Roman’s narrative battle that couldn’t exist in the same way in Pan’s Labyrinth or The Fall, for example. Desperation makes Roman an unreliable narrator for his audience, and it’s only a matter of time before they start to question him. His peril is in his own hands, and thus through his stories, we learn more about the core of his humanity than we would through fantastical versions of his childhood.
Still, at just over 90 minutes, Night of the Kings feels longer than it should. The film is best when creating and developing its characters and their inner struggles. Roman is pretty close to something revelatory of a character in the use of this trope. But with its tone all over the place and a few slow stretches, Lacôte’s craft as a filmmaker doesn’t quite match up with his intentions save for a few spellbinding sequences.