The downish critical response to Matt Ruskin‘s Crown Heights (Amazon/IFC, 8.25) is shameful. At the very least it’s harsh. I know an absorbing, well-paced docudrama when I see one, and yet some of the nyah-nyahs have pissed on it. It certainly deserves an aggregate rating in the 80s, and yet it currently has a 62% Rotten Tomatoes score and a 52% on Metacritic.
This is a believable, tightly woven, emotionally engaging tale of a real-life Brooklyn guy, Colin Warner, who did 20 years in the slam for a murder he didn’t commit. The fact that it deals straight cards, that every scene counts (it runs only 94 minutes) and that it pays off with one restrained, affecting performance after another (especially from co-leads Lakeith Stanfield and Nnamdi Asomugha) are three reasons why it won the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Film at last January’s Sundance Film Festival.
Is Crown Heights as moody and atmospheric as HBO’s The Night Of, which tells a vaguely similar tale and which all the critics flipped for? No, but that’s partly because The Night Of ran eight fucking hours. (The always admirable Bill Camp costarred in both.) The Night Of said the same thing over and over — “If the system decides to fuck you, you’re fucked…and even if you’re freed one day you’ll still be fucked because prison life has turned you into a criminal.” Crown Heights is about shit out of luck, bad breaks, friendship, character and persistence.
For me, Crown Heights made the evils of institutionalized racism seem a lot sadder and far more disturbing than two viewings of Detroit did.
Is Crown Heights as psychologically studied and unsettling as Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Wrong Man (’56), which told approximately the same tale minus the racial context and nearly 20 years of jail time? No, but the Crown Heights narrative is more gripping than the Hitchcock — it holds you on a beat-by-beat, “what’ll happen next?” basis. The Wrong Man, a dull commercial failure, is a grim slide experience — a stacked-deck, can’t-win scenario that offers little hope for a reversal of fortune. Innocent Henry Fonda is accused, interrogated, fucked over and put through hell, and it never stops. Until the clouds finally part at the very end, that is.