Forget banging pots and pans outside your window every night at 7pm, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “Black Flies” is here to pay New York’s paramedics the tribute they deserve. And this is not the type of kumbaya, we are all together, we honor true heroes celebration that helped civilians feel like they were doing their part during the worst days of the pandemic. No, this is hardcore, dead behind the eyes, See you in hell salute to the health technicians who risk their humanity to save the lives of other people; is a movie that wants to make “Bringing Out the Dead” feel like “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar”.
We’re talking Sean Penn as the grizzled first responder who’s losing his faith, and Tye Sheridan as the pure-hearted rookie partner who gets so deep into shit he starts choking his no-name girlfriend during sex. We’re talking Michael Pitt’s full “I’m walking here!” modes like an EMT who likes to play god as soon as he gets a patient inside his ambulance, and Mike Tyson—perfectly convincing in the few moments he’s on screen! — as the captain in charge of keeping this operation together. We’re talking abused dogs, eight seconds of sunlight, and a half-drowned corpse so horribly decomposed you’ll turn to your date and whisper “those are the black flies” only to realize they’re gone 20 minutes early.
As one might expect from the French-born and Bushwick-based filmmaker who made his name in well-crafted spirals of misery like 2017’s “A Prayer Before Dawn,” Sauvaire’s “Black Flies” is such a relentlessly bleak look at the inside the broken gut of the American Healthcare system that his honest attitude soon turns into something that is hard to believe. Paramedics might welcome a film that shines a harsh light into the darkest recesses of their work, a film that isn’t afraid to explore the price it exacts, the misery it pays, or the ingratitude it offers them at the end of even the most brutal change, but this clumsy marathon of plotless miseries is so exhausting and monotonous that it seems determined to numb us more than the work itself ever could.
“Black Flies” is based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel of the same name, and I’ll do that book with the courtesy of assuming that Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown’s screenplay has smoothed out many of its subtleties. Sauvaire’s film begins with fresh-faced debutant Ollie Cross (Sheridan) waking up from a bad dream in the back of an ambulance and leaping straight into a living nightmare somewhere in Brownsville or East New York. If the character’s last name doesn’t express his street Jesus complex enough, perhaps it would help to know that he wears a jacket emblazoned with huge gold angel wings whenever he’s off duty (to match the painting of a fallen angel he has). gets stuck in the rundown Chinatown room he’s renting to save money for medical school).
The fact that Cross is ready to carry the sick and dying of the world on his shoulders does not endear him to his new colleagues; nor the fact that he’s hoping to work white-coated miracles somewhere off the mean streets of Brooklyn as soon as he drives past the MCAT. That makes Ollie a natural foil for his partner Gene “Rut” Rutkokvsky (Penn), who has been stuck in the job since before 9/11. Rut has seen it all or given up looking for what’s left, but despite the crunchiness he’s developed over the course of a career that has cost him more weddings than his most recent ex-wife can count (shout outs at a one-scene cameo from Katherine Waterston), warms to her innocent new partner after Ollie laughs at Rut’s favorite pedophile joke — something to remember the next time you try to break the ice with a paramedic who’s rushing you to the hospital.
Penn may be playing a pencil-thin archetype, but the first few strokes of “Black Flies” serve as a powerful reminder of his chops as an artist. His portrayal nimbly walks the fine line between hardened and heartless, and the film works better whenever it wonders whether Ruth will be able to save himself more successfully than any of the people he and Cross are called upon to help. nightly. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that our heroes don’t have a very high success rate, as many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers would die before they seek medical care they know they can’t afford.
Indeed, Sauvaire’s characters spend most of the film hauling corpses to Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, or clearing homeless people from places where their presence is unwanted. Occasionally they do something that would seem to qualify as a win (like helping an abused woman whose husband claims she fell down the stairs), but Ruth just can’t seem to resolve those situations without screwing things up on her way out the door. . It’s not that he’s bad at his job as much as he’s starting to question the good that he’s doing. Cross knows the feeling early on, as we glean from the cleansing and frequent sex he has with a woman whose name he never bothers to ask (Raquel Nave). These scenes are presented in an obliquely beautiful weaving of bare boobs and hard thrusting, while talented cinematographer David Ungaro shoots them in the steamy, fractured style one might expect from a fly-on-the-wall film that primarily focuses on women as vessels for male trauma.
Despite the obviousness of its narrative trajectory, “Black Flies” is less concerned with telling a conventional story than it is with tracing the slow descent from doing the gentleman’s work to becoming the devil’s envoy (Pitt’s metalhead paramedic illustrates the worst-case scenario, although its performance is just barely enough to create some interesting storylines). What a little plot the film has to offer only when Rut and Cross had the opportunity to help a woman – played by the charming “Catch the Fair One” star Kali Ries – deliver her baby. This of course goes awry in more ways than you could ever imagine, as Ruth gets stuck at the crossroads between saving people and saving them from trouble.
There’s no denying that America’s obscene disregard for the health and safety of its citizens might lead a first responder to believe they’re on the front lines of an unwinnable battle, but callous pretense has a way of making it seem the most unbearable truths of life stuff of fantasy. After watching this film swirl down the drain for 90 minutes, the sight of Sean Penn stepping into a decrepit bathroom while holding the fate of a premature, HIV-positive baby in his hands can’t help but feel suffocatingly overwhelmed; instead of making you think attention, the scene just shows how artificially Sauvaire’s film has blocked anything that could bring its characters back from the brink.
It’s a choice made in service of a climactic scene that predictably bathes Rut in light at the end of the tunnel, as “Black Flies” reverses two hours of “you can’t save everyone” in one fell swoop by restoring the saving power whoever at the last minute. Both arguments would have been strengthened by a film that alternated between them rather than using one as a cudgel to beat the other within an inch of his waist. But “Black Flies” is too enraptured by the violence he finds on the fringes of New York City to significantly interrogate the mental strain of healing him; too focused on the constant hum of sirens and death to save anything more nuanced from those layers of white noise.
“Black Flies” premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.