Beware of black flies, they are the first to smell death. That is what rookie FDNY paramedic Ollie Cross is told by a colleague as he ventures into an abandoned apartment where a swarm is buzzing around a decaying dead body in a bathtub. It is clearly a metaphor for the job of first responders like Ollie and his partner Gene Rutkowsky who are also the first to “smell death,” repeatedly, on a job that takes its toll not just on those in need of medical help, but also on those who provide it.
Premiering in competition Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival, Black Flies stars Sean Penn as a grizzled veteran paramedic known as “Rut” now on the nighttime beat with rookie partner Cross, played with conviction by Tye Sheridan, as they answer the call in the largely rundown neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn. It is the classic Hollywood setup for this kind of drama: the older guy who has seen it all teamed with the newbie just trying to make it through rough nights on the mean streets of New York City, ground zero for those who find little or no hope in America’s broken health system. They are the tough gang members, the abused and beaten wives, the homeless camped out in laundromats, the drug addicted, the ignored immigrants and more that these guys see 24/7. Sometimes they forced to fight them off in order to save a life society for the most part doesn’t care about saving.
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That is the basis of what French director, and longtime Brooklyn resident, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has chosen to film for his English-language film debut after past success with other movies swathed in violence like 2017’s A Prayer Before Dawn, which brought him into Cannes Competition, plus the likes of Johnny Mad Dog, Punk and other works. It is evidently the causes of violence that inform much of his work, but also darker visions of his adopted country in the U.S. where he sees the plight of those left behind, and its health care system that, unlike Europe’s, makes things nearly impossible for those in need. The director cites those who have made films in this environment for inspiration like Scorsese, Ferrara and Friedkin, particularly the latter’s 1971 Oscar winner The French Connection shot in many of the same locations as Black Flies.
Maybe that is a reason why I felt I was watching something so familiar, even though it has been transposed to modern times. In fact, Martin Scorsese really covered the exact same territory of burnt-out paramedics on the night beat in his 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead that starred Nicolas Cage. That movie actually had little plot, more a series of vignettes on the daily beat of a job that had robbed them of their humanity. Black Flies, despite a game cast and nice mostly handheld camera work by David Ungaro, doesn’t offer anything new, only a reaffirmation that we haven’t come that far, even with Obamacare. Hope is fleeting, although by the end of two grueling hours of this stuff, Sauvaire does offer perhaps just a little.
Mostly though, Black Flies, with a screenplay by Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown with the apparent help of Shannon Burke who wrote the original novel on which it is based, takes on a series of calls beginning with a harrowing attempt to save the life of a young Black man severely shot who is clinging to life in the back of their ambulance. He doesn’t make it, and that bothers Ollie more than Rut, who has been at it much longer. He asks his young partner if he had ever watched someone he knew actually die, to which Ollie replies yes, his own mother, who committed suicide when he was a child. He is about to get a much larger taste of it in this job for which he is still new enough to be trying to pass an exam.
There is one patient after another, all different circumstances, from a badly beaten wife still being threatened by her terrifying husband who a guy fighting off Rut and Ollie before they can get her to a hospital, to a pregnant heroin user who, alone, has just given grisly and bloody birth to an apparently dead baby. There is more to that incident that will come to the surface, but the director chooses over and over to take us into these sad pockets of humanity that are gut-wrenching to watch.
Off the job, though, the film offers a number of sex scenes between Ollie and new girlfriend (and mother of a baby) played by Raquel Nave, who eases the tension for him but doesn’t really advance the story much. We also get a brief scene dealing with Rutkowsky’s personal life as he visits his latest ex-wife (Katherine Waterston) and his only daughter, discovering his ex has met someone new and plans to move with their child. Unlike the book that had him with a bit of PTSD due to his service in the Vietnam War, here it is doing the job on 9/11 that provided the trauma in his background.
Generally, though, these scenes, or those where the partners eat Chinese food, are there to make these guys more dimensional, more recognizably human. The actors, certainly of a very high caliber, do their best to bring them to life especially Sheridan, who is really at the center of the story. Penn had taken a respite from acting but delivers in a role tailor-made for his considerable talents, though the story arc for his character didn’t quite come together for me in a credible way, particularly when this longtime FDNY veteran turns up in a hoodie that seemed so out of place for him. Maybe it was meant to show he was finally going over the edge, I don’t know, but it was jarring. Also on the EMT team, Michael Carmen Pitt plays a total a**hole who mercilessly hounds Ollie over caring too much, even about a dead dog, and Gbenga Akinnagbe who does fine in his few scenes. No less than Mike Tyson plays the exasperated fire chief in amusing fashion, but the role goes nowhere.
The idea behind Black Flies is admirable. It does serve to remind us of how screwed up America can be, especially with one major political party trying to take its health system backwards. But despite the obvious gritty filmmaking skills of its lauded French director, something was lost in translation that keeps this from really soaring.
The movie is looking for domestic distribution.
Title: Black Flies
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Screenplay: Ryan King, Ben Mac Brown
Cast: Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Mike Tyson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston, Raquel Nave, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Running time: 2 hr 4 min
Sales agent: FilmNation Entertainment (international); WME Independent (domestic)
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