The road to hell they say is paved with good intentions. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s homage to those fighting the good fight, here it’s first responders in New York, whose days and nights are spent surrounded by human misery and death, aims high and falls on its face.
Screening in contention for the Palme d’Or for reasons unknown (no amount of explaining from the programmers could justify its presence in the most elite film competition on the planet), Black Flies (2023) is the type of medium budget picture you might watch after scrolling through Netflix and think to yourself as the credits roll ‘s’alright’. In such a scenario, its creative deficiencies are forgivable. In the setting of the Cannes Film Festival, the film will be harshly judged. It has no business being here.
Set mostly at night, depicting NYC as a hellscape of homelessness, criminality and indifference, Sean Penn’s grizzled Rutkovsky teams up with newbie Cross (Tye Sheridan). Rutkovsky is a cynical see-it-all-and-got-the-t-shirt type, while his more sensitive co-worker wears a red sports coat with golden angels’ wings embroidered on the shoulders (just in case you don’t get the metaphor). It’s trite, surface-level stuff we’re dealing with, here.
Rutkovsky is a divorced loner in a rut (and everybody calls him Rut), while Cross has a cross to bear … good Lord, it’s on the nose! Also, full of portentous-sounding dialogue about heaven and the bad place, about how nobody gives a shit anymore, the movie is soundtracked by a frankly pretentious use of Wagner’s stirring Vorspiel to Das Rheingold.
Sheridan, who looks for all the world like a young Frederic Forrest, does his best to portray a young man slipping into a breakdown, while Penn just snarls at everything and everyone and calls it a performance. The little vignettes of the pair’s callouts make for the film’s better moments, with Penn and Sheridan interacting with real people plucked off the streets and asked to participate. If that’s not quite the case, then kudos for making it appear so, bringing naturalistic respite to the monotonous expressionist assault. The creatively obscene stream of drunken or drug-fuelled invective aimed at the pair trying to help is hilarious. In one shot, we catch Penn smirking as if he’s suddenly broken character.
Black Flies is mediocre cinema and it outstays its welcome by a good half hour, with Sauvaire and his editor not knowing when to wrap it up. So it drags on, and on, and Ariston, finally ending melodramatically and cheaply. For it has not done enough to earn our interest, let alone our empathy for these cardboard cut-out characters.
Still: Festival de Cannes