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Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire Black Flies Review

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Asphalt City | Review

Asphalt City | Review

Angel Heart: Sauvaire Serves Savior Complex in EMS Thriller

“It’s easier with wings than without,” was the tagline for Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire, which could easily have been borrowed for Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s fourth feature, Asphalt City. Based on the 2008 novel by Shannon Burke, Ben Mac Brown and Ryan King, both making their screenwriting debut, make the rookie mistake of not trusting their audience well enough to discern its key themes and motifs. Filled with fascinating characters and a handful of intense altercations, it’s a pity to see such a promising character study of how good intentions often lead to dark consequences hobbled significantly by such discernible handholding. Still, there’s a lot to admire from Sauvaire’s latest, who seems to enjoy crafting narratives requiring grueling travails for his eventually bedraggled protagonists (as in 2017’s A Prayer Before Dawn – read review). A showcase for Tye Sheridan as much as it is a welcome return for Sean Penn’s abilities as an actor, the film’s intensity ultimately isn’t matched by a requisite amount of intelligence.

Ollie Cross (Sheridan) is a rookie EMS paramedic working with FDNY, a temporary position he’s landed himself as he tries for a second time to pass his MCAT and pursue his medical career. He’s not quite prepared for the onslaught of intense situations, and Chief Burroughs (Mike Tyson) pairs him with the seasoned Gene “Rut” Rutokowsky (Penn). The two men develop a bond, but it’s clear Rut is on the verge of a burnout, having recently been divorced by his ex-wife (Katherine Waterston), who’s about to move Upstate with their young daughter. Over his years in the job, Rut, like many of his senior peers, have developed troubling tendencies of withholding care on purpose for people they might determine are better off dead, and one such incident forces Cross to confront his own demons, which have led him to the pursuit of his profession.

What’s really missing is the necessary ambiguity we need to feel for Cross, whose surname, like many elements of this script, are just a bit too on the nose (as is Penn’s Rut, who’s clearly stuck in one). Immediate comparisons to Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999) are apparent, a film with its own idiosyncratic offbeat energy penned by Paul Schrader. If only Black Flies had been allowed to dwell in some of the deep, dark recesses tackled in some of Schrader’s other masterworks, like Taxi Driver (1974) or his recent ‘man in a room’ trilogy, where we’re never quite certain if his protagonists are capable of doing the right thing, even though they may often want to. With Penn on board in the mentor role, this recalls his early film Colors (1988) as much as it does something like Training Day (2001), where a rookie is destined to be stripped of his naïveté through the inevitable miserablism his occupation deals with. It’s a scenario where being a problem is ultimately easier and more cathartic than being part of the solution.

What Asphalt City does quite well is return a sense of menace to the New York underbelly, where spirituality and the degradation of the concrete jungle were the ultimate recipe for tension, anxiety, and madness, like Jacob’s Ladder (1990). There aren’t any supernatural elements on hand here, but it’s immediately clear Cross is suffering from a savior complex, and we’re treated to a litany of visual cues, from the wings on his jacket, to the lone piece of art hanging in his room, to a variety of hints in the dialogue about who gets to play at being a god.

The only window into Cross’ past is a story he tells about finding his mother suicided in the bathtub (which aligns with a sequence explaining the meaning of the title, the insects smelling death before anything else can), too young to be of any assistance. But the film’s obvious tendencies are magnified by a lack of any additional interiority for Cross. He begins a romance with a young, single mother (Raquel Nave), which plays out predictably in his path towards becoming a fallen angel. But this really doesn’t enlighten us in any way regarding Cross as an actual person who wants to ‘do good.’ Likewise, Michael Pitt is on hand to showcase his potential fate in this profession, a character who is also a little bit too over the top (even if Pitt excels at delivering characters on the edge of self destruction).

But Penn is the best he’s been in years, thankfully allowed to perform outside of the film’s insistent motifs, landing a somewhat touching moment with his ex-wife (Katherine Waterston in her one scene). It’s a pleasure to see Kali Reis (Catch the Fair One, 2021), even if her one lucid moment arrives just when the film has become unabashed about being hackneyed. And likewise for Mike Tyson, who gets to lash out at the insubordinate Penn. More time spent with some of these more interesting characters than the rote sex/romance might have allowed for more unique explorations of Cross and Rut, but theirs a merely a doomed trajectory we’ve seen before.

Reviewed on May 18th at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 120 Mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Note: At the time of review this was originally titled Black Flies.

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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