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Diego Ongaro Down with the King Review

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Down with the King | Review

Down with the King | Review

King Without a Crown: Ongaro Crafts a Rap Trap in Portrait of Creative Crisis

Down with the King ReviewFifteen years ago, Jay-Z defiantly declared “Thirty’s the new twenty” in “30 Something,” embracing the cache of maturation, long term success, and the development of his own artistic expressions in a youth obsessed industry and musical genre. Rapper Freddie Gibbs makes his screen debut in Diego Ongaro’s Down with the King as a musical artist trying to maintain a similar sense of relevance while battling creative ennui and the crushing machine of social media defined celebrity. A narrative of awkward transitions in the realm of artistry and adulthood, Gibbs shines in this simmering portrait of a defensive musician unsure of how to continue in the lane of gangsta rap as he retreats into the wilderness to regain his composure.

Mercury Maxwell aka Money Merc (Gibbs) excuses himself to a small farming community to write and record his next album. Both his manager, Paul (David Krumholtz) and the studio are anxious for the album’s delivery, especially as there’s a contentious rivalry brewing between Money Merc and a younger rapper. Despite his fame and notoriety, it’s clear if his next album isn’t a hit of equal magnitude, his stronghold will be absorbed by the next in line. Struggling to evoke his particular sentiments in the tranquility of the community, wherein his bond with local farmer Bob (Bob Tarasuk) and an affable cashier at the local hardware store, Michaele (Jamie Neumann) provide just the distraction he craves, Merc anguishes in his attempt to repeat the formula of his previous work rather than attempt the risk of something reflecting his growth as an artist.

Like Thoreau’s sentiments in Walden, Mercury Maxwell is looking beyond the facade of fame and money for a certain truth, both about himself and a denied connection to his own history. Embracing the distraction of manual labor, he ponders aloud about his grandfather’s farm in the South in ways which suggest he desires self-exile. Irritated at the constant nagging of his manager (an almost unrecognizable David Krumholtz, at least as compared to his teen roles in The Slums of Beverly Hills and The Ice Storm) and the provocations of his critics on social media, Money Merc is not too keen on criticism, constructive or otherwise.

Consistently shutting down any and all who oppose or question his products or intentions, he’s a ganglion of raw nerves perpetually poised to walk away and call it quits, despite all those in his entourage (including his mother, a warm Sharon Washington) who depend on his artistic longevity.

Ongaro’s 2015 debut Bob and the Trees features similar textural elements (including a reunion with Tarasuk, again playing Bob) on man in relation to nature and creative compulsions, but Down with the King plays like a contemporary portrait of how toxic the presumed necessity of social media is for one’s public persona and career. Unable to ignore his constant critics and exhausted by the rigamarole which accompanies his particular genre of music (including feuds potentially turning violent), Gibbs is unsurprisingly authentic as a rap star unable to contend with a potential expiration date.

Jamie Neumann, reminiscent of Shailene Woodley, is wonderfully low key as an inevitable accent in his perpetual drift, though their shared creature comfort feels born completely out of propinquity. Co-written by director Xabi Molia (whose 2017 film Kings for a Day also examines this pull between fulfilling one’s own needs vs. those of others), Ongaro’s vibe leans toward Euro-style character study, particularly with its final metaphoric moment of being released from a cage without having to deploy one’s most noxious weapons of self-defense.

Reviewed on July 11th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – ACID Program. 100 Mins

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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