When it comes to drugs, location is everything. Ideally situated between the wealthy nations of Europe and the suppliers to the east, the Czech Republic has become both an important smuggling hub and a source of drugs in its own right. As our guide to this world of crime, drugs and murder David Frýdl (Cyril Dobrý) tells us in one of his many chats directly to camera, “drugs are our national treasure… thanks to drugs, we are known worldwide.”
David seems pretty keen on being known himself. When we first meet him, he’s charging up his Tesla for a high-speed drive through town with his buddy René (Miloslav Pecháček), taunting the cops as they hurtle down the highway. Loud and flashy, they’re exactly what you’d expect from drug dealers – and as Rats opens with a tour through a massive meth lab in a disused indoor swimming pool, it’s clear that there’s a lot of drugs to go around.
Rats isn’t about the flashy life of a young drug dealer enjoying the flood of dirty money that meth brings. Okay, it’s not just about that because rest assured, David is taking full advantage of the kind of lifestyle that large amounts of easy money can provide. He’s just not enjoying it; as we learn right from the start of the series, David has more on his mind than just having a good time.
That carefree race down the highway turns out to be a way to get pulled over by the cops and secretly meet up with Major Jan Blažek (Václav Neuzil). David’s an informer, and the Major isn’t someone you want to be in debt to; when David tries to get Blažek to agree that the dumb but loyal René won’t get dragged down with everyone else, his half-hearted reassurances aren’t what anyone would call reassuring.
Across the first episode the pieces slowly fall into place. From one angle David has it all: a fast car, fancy clothes, a flashy apartment. Even his drug dealing isn’t all that risky, peddling meth cooked up by the local branch of the Vietnamese syndicate to people over the internet. But his desire to live large has brought the wrong kind of attention, from both sides of the law – and his own family aren’t going to be too keen on his sideline as an informant if they ever find out.
The only person on his side as the walls start to close in is officer Petra Vávrová (Lenka Krobotová). She’s Blažek’s partner (and mistress), and a recent stretch of maternity leave combined with her loveless marriage to a high-ranking police officer have her eager to make a name for herself. Handling David seems like a great way to achieve it. Problem is, neither of them are as street-smart as they’re going to need to be to keep him alive.
“Everyone makes their own decisions in life,” David says at one point. Just about everyone in Rats seems to be coming off a series of bad ones. Vávrová feels trapped by her children and husband, her career stalled as everyone around her just sees her as a mother. David’s been spending money as fast as he could make it, thinking the good times would never end. He’s a small player in a very big game, and the board he’s on could be turned over at any time.
Director Viktor Tauš gives David’s world an over-the-top, at times almost surreal edge. Neon-lit nights and looming shadows are just as much part of the atmosphere as the harsh lighting of police offices. His energetic visual style underlines the seedy attraction and sinister menace of the Czech underworld; when a major bad guy is revealed to be running his operations out of a disused church (not exactly the most inconspicuous hideout), its excessive nature is totally in character.
It’s the Czech drug scene that makes this more than your usual crime saga. There’s an almost forensic exploration of how the import, manufacture and sale of meth works in Eastern Europe going on here. Seeing how these operations work gives the drama a matter-of-fact grounding that makes the threat against David feel all the more real. These crime syndicates bring in huge sums of cash, have a reach that extends across the globe, and aren’t afraid to deal with anyone – be it civilians or police – who stand in their way.
The more we see of them, the more obvious it becomes that they’re not messing around; the quickest way to end up dead is for them to find out you’re a rat.
Rats is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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