Starring Tye Sheridan and Sean Penn as a pair of EMTs making their way through an endless gauntlet of violence, cruelty, and blood, Black Flies is the kind of movie that could fuel a year’s worth of wet dreams for any politicians eager to portray New York as a crime-soaked hellscape. But the film, directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, isn’t trying all that hard to be realistic, as evidenced by its stylized passages featuring flashing, kaleidoscopic sirens, inchoate shrieking, and surging Wagner overtures. The film is bleak and depressing even by Cannes standards, but it has just enough of an art-film vibe that it’s also kind of perfect for Cannes. You can practically smell the director chain-smoking behind the camera, muttering about spitting in the face of humanity.
Based on a 2008 novel by Shannon Burke, Black Flies has a pretty familiar set-up. Wide-eyed rookie Ollie Cross (Sheridan), a young, aspiring doctor eager to get some real-world experience while studying for the MCATs, is matched with the profane and perpetually pissy Rutkovsky (Penn), who’s diligent at his job but has been doing it for so long that he feels nothing for those he’s supposed to be saving. These men both have pasts, of a sort. Ollie has memories of his mother’s suicide, and of his inability to help her. Now, he’s doing penance, like some kind of Paul Schrader character, living in a tiny room in a cramped Chinatown apartment. “That’s how it starts for a lot of guys,” Rutkovsky observes, “seeing someone they love draw their last breath.” He himself is long past that stage. He’s lost count of his ex-wives (his most recent one is played by Katherine Waterston), and counters the horrors of existence by telling dirty jokes and fantasizing about opening doors on bicyclists. Rutkovsky isn’t a particularly well-defined character — he’s mostly just a collection of attitudes — but Penn does bring some bitter charm to the part. Few actors are as convincing at being just generally angry at the world.
Despite a repetitive, episodic structure, Black Flies is never boring. Sauvaire films each encounter like a vision of hell. Gang members bleeding out. Addicts passed out on laundromat floors. Abused wives being screamed at by their shithead husbands. Purple babies born to dying moms. Dogs shot for no reason (and then used as props for gruesome practical jokes by the EMTs). The movie wants to rub our faces in the blood and the grime, to traumatize us, and on that level, it often succeeds. But it’s also sometimes ridiculous. As Ollie and Rutkovsky intubate a 63-year-old meat worker who can’t breathe, the director, apparently worried that he’s been too tasteful up until now, cuts away to shots of lambs being slaughtered.
Burke’s novel, which I haven’t read, was acclaimed for its terrifying authenticity; the author had spent five years working as an EMT and had based much of it on his real-life experiences. The movie, by contrast, feels purposefully stylized. There are nods to Terrence Malick throughout: He’s thanked in the credits, the Wagner cues are the same ones from The New World, and Sheridan and Penn represent a Tree of Life reunion. That makes for an odd reference point for this kind of material: Malick’s cinema is nothing if not compassionate, while Black Flies is mired in the misery of its milieu. Locked into the perspective of its protagonists, the film denies the people around these EMTs their humanity. They don’t have names, and they barely have faces. They’re just body parts and screams.
Obviously, EMTs get called for emergencies; they don’t get called for birthday parties. But as these white EMTs make their way through these incessant horrors, Sauvaire unsettles us with the sheer anonymity of the faces around them, mostly belonging to people of color and immigrants. It’s tough to watch, and even tougher to take. We sense that this is a structural gambit, designed to pay off later when our heroes will surely be confronted by the fact that these people are, in fact, people. That is exactly what does happen — but when the moment comes, it feels strangely cursory. So much so that one can’t help but feel that the director’s real interests lie elsewhere, back in the film’s intense, gore-soaked spectacles of depravity and pain. There’s style and skill to spare in Black Flies, but the movie also feels like a victim of the very numbness and emotional emptiness it seeks to expose.
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