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Can The Serpent Make Tahar Rahim a Star in the U.S.?

The acclaimed French actor seems poised to (finally) break out with his new Netflix limited series.
  • Tahar Rahim plays the suave, stylish (and murderous) lead in Netflix's The Serpent. (Photo: Netflix)
    Tahar Rahim plays the suave, stylish (and murderous) lead in Netflix's The Serpent. (Photo: Netflix)

    There are few projects that feel as close to a sure thing as The Serpent. Co-produced with the BBC, the new eight-part Netflix limited series about a suave 1970s serial killer who manages to elude police for far too long has all the makings of a Netflix hit — a compelling story, stylish period details, and superb acting. Which is great news for its lead actor Tahar Rahim, who's been on the brink of international fame for a while now.

    Rahim, a French actor of Algerian descent, first made his mark in the film Un Prophete (A Prophet). Directed by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard, the film is about a young man (Rahim) who is sent to prison, where he falls in with the Corsican mobsters, despite the fact that he is Muslim. The film is brutal but incredibly engaging, and Rahim's resilient performance anchors it. He received a heap of praise for his work, including a Cesar Award (France's version of the Oscars) for Best Actor. But while Un Prophete showed up on American critics' top ten lists and eventually even got an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Rahim himself didn't get much attention here in the States.

    From there Rahim continued to appear in French productions, with the odd supporting performances in American TV series. He played an undercover FBI agent working with Jeff Daniels in the Hulu series The Looming Tower. He also played Andre Holland's business partner in Netflix's Damien Chazelle jazz series The Eddy. Then, at the end of 2020 came The Mauritanian, in which he plays Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the titular Mauritanian, who was held without charge in a Guantanamo Bay detention facility for fourteen years. The film, which also stars Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Shailene Woodley, follows the legal battle to free him. Despite a relatively low profile earlier this season, The Mauritanian has been building steam, with Jodie Foster recently winning the Golden Globe Award for her supporting performance, and Rahim receiving both Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations as Best Actor.

    All of which is to say that Rahim's latest project arrives at a time when critics and cinephiles already have his name on their lips and the potential for a crossover into public acclaim is ripe. The Serpent could do it. Based on the true story of Charles Sobhraj, a French serial killer who murdered at least a dozen people — most of them Western tourists — in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Rahim plays Sobhraj as suave, stylish, and deceptively psychopathic as he slithers his way around his many victims. It is a compelling performance of a complete monster, and it's the kind of spotlight role that will often elevate an actor to the next level, especially given Netflix's broad-reach.

    We've seen this kind of thing happen before. The 2010 miniseries Carlos starred Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez as the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It was a blazing star turn for Ramirez, in a production that was one of that year's most compelling pieces of entertainment. Ramirez was an unknown in the United States at the time, but his career subsequently took a sharp upturn as he was cast as Jennifer Lawrence's husband in Joy, the Patrick Swayze role in the Point Break remake, the suspicious psychiatrist in The Girl on the Train, and now he's third billed behind Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in Disney's upcoming Jungle Cruise.

    While Carlos existed before Netflix got into the original-productions game, the streamer has proven an similar ability to launch the U.S. careers of non-American actors like Pedro Pascal, who starred as a DEA agent in the acclaimed series Narcos. Pascal was a supporting player in the first two seasons before graduating to the lead role in season three. This was around the same time that Game of Thrones helped vault his career prospects after a very showing one-season arc as Dornish prince Oberyn Martell. Combined, this one-two-punch got Pascal to where he is today: playing the titular Mandalorian on Disney+, and the principal villain in Wonder Woman 1984.

    Whether this is the arc that awaits Tahar Rahim after The Serpent isn't guaranteed, but it would be well deserved. It's been over a decade since Un Prophete proved his potential as a leading man, and it just might be a terrifying performance as a killer that puts him over the top.

    The Serpent drops on Netflix April 2nd.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Serpent, Netflix, Edgar Ramirez, Pedro Pascal, Tahar Rahim