Deciding to flee Sri Lanka in the waning days of the country’s brutally violent civil war, a former Tamil Tiger (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) teams up with a woman (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and a young child (Claudine Vinasithamby) to assume the identities of a deceased family in hopes it will speed up their process of resettlement. They make their way to an area of crime ridden projects and tenements in Paris where the fake husband and wife take up work as different kinds of caretakers; he takes care of property and she takes care of an elderly man. It quickly becomes apparent that while they’ve left a war zone behind, they’ve signed up for a new life full of sometimes equally dangerous and uneasy problems.

French filmmaker Jacques Audiard follows up on prevalent themes from his most recent films in the wrenching humanistic drama Dheepan (winner of the illustrious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015), and the results are the director’s finest work to date. Once again examining how people react to starting over in the wake of tragic circumstances and setbacks, it outdoes his solid prison drama A Prophet and handily outpaces the turgid, overwrought Rust and Bone. A lot of Dheepan’s power might come from having a charged and pointed political message on his side concerning how crime, deception, and prejudice are sometimes intertwined, but there’s no denying the film’s filler-free screenplay and taut direction.

The screenplay by Audiard, frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré expressly concerns societies that like to perform often atrocious acts against their fellow man brazenly and openly, and how those societies are perceived by people trying to suppress a true sense of identity out of a need for social, political, and mortal survival. This family knows who they are, and they understand that they aren’t presenting their true selves to the world. Not that coming out and telling the truth suddenly would make their lives any easier. If anything, they would more likely than not become bigger targets for bullying and intimidation. So instead of pushing back against their fading identities of old, these refugees eventually come to places of inner peace, and some might even say, assimilation, a concept that the film and its characters have a purposefully uneasy relationship with.

Audiard, with the help of some uniquely poetic, often claustrophobic cinematography courtesy of Eponine Momenceau, frames his story as one of unquiet redemption. Like all of Audiard’s past films, Dheepan works primarily as an exercise in dramatic, visceral escalations, but here the naturalistic settings lend the material not only a sense of style, but of authenticity. Unlike previous films of his, Dheepan isn’t strictly a genre exercise, nor does it have a predisposed artistic pretension. There’s a looseness that makes the struggle at the heart of the story more palpably understandable to an outside observer, and at times, more outwardly terrifying. While the climax might be a touch too bombastic and on-the-nose (which will continue to be Audiard’s greatest filmmaking sin), here it feels earned rather than forced.

But the film’s greatest strength has to be the leading performance of Antonythasan. A published author, former child soldier, and refugee, Antonythasan isn’t a professional actor by trade or discipline, but he certainly understands the character, his motivations, and demons. To picture Audiard making the film with anyone else in the lead seems unconscionable in hindsight. It’s a performance given by an actor getting deeply in touch with their past to sometimes purposefully uncomfortable degrees. And considering the character he’s playing is also an actor of sorts, one couldn’t ask for a better anchor to a film this powerful.