Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire‘s Black Flies (Open Road), a pounding, brutally realistic New York City action drama about living-on-the-ragged-edge paramedics, is far and away the best film I’ve seen at Cannes ’23 so far.
It beats the shit out of you, this film, but in a way that you can’t help but admire. It’s a tough sit but a very high-quality one. The traumatized soul of lower-depths Brooklyn and the sad, ferociously angry residents who’ve been badly damaged in ways I’d rather not describe has never felt more in-your-face.
In terms of assaultive realism and gritty authenticity Black Flies matches any classic ’70s or ’80s New York City film you could mention…The French Connection, Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A, Good Time, Across 110th Street.
And what an acting triumph for Sean Penn, who plays the caring but worn-down and throughly haunted Gene Rutkovsky, a veteran paramedic who bonds with and brings along Tye Sheridan‘s Ollie Cross, a shaken-up Colorado native who lives in a shitty Chinatown studio and is trying to get into medical school.
Rutkovsky is a great hardboiled character, and Penn has certainly taken the bull by the horns and delivered his finest performance since his Oscar-winning turns in Mystic River (’03) and Milk (’08).
And Sheridan is also damn good in this, his best film ever. His character eats more trauma and anxiety and suffers more spiritual discomfort than any rookie paramedic deserves, and you can absolutely feel everything that’s churning around inside the poor guy.
At first I thought this 120-minute film would be Bringing Out The Dead, Part 2, but Black Flies, which moves like an express A train and feels more like 90 minutes, struck me as harder and punchier than that 1999 Martin Scorsese film, which I didn’t like all that much after catching it 23 and 1/2 years ago and which I’ve never rewatched.
Yes, it’s one nerve-wracking traumatic event after another, and so it feels like a forced deck at times. And yes, it dive-bombs into a kind of too-sudden happy ending during the last 10 or 15. But this is one alive-on-the-planet-earth urban thriller that grips and holds and doesn’t let you go.
It’s obviously more of a guy film and certainly not for couples (I noticed at least four or five women journos bailing within the first 30 or 40 — an older woman sitting next to me walked out only about 20 minutes in), but by any brutal big-city standard it’s a wowser.
The excellent, go-for-broke supporting performances from Michael Pitt, Katherine Waterston, Mike Tyson and Raquel Nave are nothing to snort at either.
Based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel (\based upon Burke’s real-life experience as a paramedic) and written by Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown, Black Flies is totally balls to the wall.