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Cannes 2023: Black Flies Is an Intense, Edgy Medical Drama

Image Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

In the justly forgotten 2008 comedy What Just Happened, a fictionalised version of Sean Penn starred in a pretentious drama whose premiere at Cannes is marred by a scene featuring the gruesome shooting of a bull terrier which outrages those in attendance. And now, I, the only person in the world who remembers that What Just Happened exists, am seated at Cannes to watch Black Flies, a pretentious Sean Penn vehicle in which a bull terrier is gruesomely shot in the first half an hour. I can hope at least that he appreciated the humor in that.

Walking in the footprints of one of the greatest films ever made is no easy task, and although most don’t apply that superlative title to Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead, I most certainly would. I think if director Jean-Stephane Sauvage and I are in agreement over anything, it’s that that film is a masterpiece. Therefore, although I don’t begrudge this film’s aspirations, in my eyes it’s aiming high but falling well short, more like Bringing Out the Dead if Antoine Fuqua had made it. I’m not convinced those less than devoted to Scorsese’s underrated opus wouldn’t feel similarly unimpressed though, cause sadly there’s too much about this muddled assortment of grim clichés and labored Catholic symbolism that is lacking.

Black Flies follows Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan), a rookie paramedic with the New York fire department who’s finding the job tougher than he expected and finds himself under the wing of his jaded partner Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), who might have seen a little too much of humanity’s dark side. People (wrongly) decried Todd Phillips’s Joker as a phony knock off of Scorsese and Schrader’s classic works, and those people had better show up with that same energy for this a mess of masculine woe-is-me-clichés of ex-wives, martyr complexes, workplace bullies, mommy issues, and casual sex.

Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan as paramedics in Black Flies.
Image Courtesy of FilmNation Entertainment / Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s vision is an almost comically grim one, as night after night, Cross is confronted with desperate and hostile patients, often all too willing to pour out their life stories in between berating him for his inexperience and inconvenience. Rutkovsky tells him to stay detached, but it slowly becomes clear how dangerous that attitude could be in itself, as we see the toll it has taken on his personal life and marriage to his ex-wife (a thankless glorified cameo for Katherine Waterson), an effect mirrored in Cross’s own non-relationship with a girlfriend (Raquel Nave) who I think had maybe two scenes where she was clothed. Sauvage’s film certainly doesn’t shy away from the gory details of life as a city paramedic, in fact one could even say it all but revels in them, it has the intensity of Bringing Out the Dead, but none of the poetry or absurdist humor that makes that film so life affirming despite its darkness, not something one could say of this. There is a refreshing level to its intensity, it’s kind of endearing to see a film so committed to resurrecting bitter new Hollywood aesthetics and sensibilities in 2023, but did you have to leave everything that made those movies subversive and clued in behind?

Aside from the violence and sex, what passes for a risk in Black Flies is the stunt casting of Mike Tyson as a fire department dispatcher, a role too small for him to be good or bad in, and only allows him to be distracting. Sheridan is convincingly out of his depth, but doesn’t make his on edge protagonist more than whiny. Penn fares better as the hardened cynical mentor, an apt role for him at this stage in his career, and certainly better than original choice Mel Gibson would have been, but the biggest scene stealer is Michael Pitt as the obnoxious live-wire Tom Sizemore to Sheridan’s Nicolas Cage. As his unhinged ball-breaking partner he’s one of recent cinema’s most over the top a–holes and Pitt chews the scenery for all he’s worth, pulling Cross and the viewer into the circle of hell he’s staked out all for himself.

The film’s central theme explores the idea some people aren’t worth saving, or rather, the temptation for fall into that line of thinking when the assistance you extend is rebuffed so ungratefully and the addicts and criminals you help just throw themselves into the fire when you help them out of the frying pan. It’s honestly such a non-moral quandary that one would have to be completely lacking in either empathy or perspective to be even remotely invested in. It’s adjacent to a lot of potentially fascinating ideas about long term preventative and rehabilitative healthcare and concerns about questioning the potential overreach of medicinal authority and consent, but for this to be a core appeal of the film, it would have to be discussed more tactfully and rigorously.

As it is, Black Flies‘ histrionics start to feel almost borderline racist with the leading medics all being White and the patients overwhelmingly Black, Asian or Latinx. It feels like a textbook white savior in crisis movie that has none of the reflection or self-examination that either its ’70s forebears nor modern analogues like You Were Never Really Here benefit from. It’s all unreconstructed messiah imagery with its protagonist given literal angel wings on his jacket and a portrait of St. Michael above his bed. To my shame, I did have to suppress laughter in some of the more intense moments of emotion, it just felt so clichéd and heavy-handed.

Black Flies is undeniably intense with strong performances and a raw visceral appeal, especially to the cinematography, and part of me appreciates a movie that obviously cares so little about making its audience uncomfortable. But the film feels too embedded in cliché to approach its subject matter with what feels like anything approaching real authority or authenticity. If it’s going to shock and upset anyone. it’s not going to be those who would relate to its protagonist and that’s a problem. Despite its goals of realism and credibility, it’s a transparent attempt at shock value where the ingredients are out of date.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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