Black Flies is a New York film if ever there was one; a dark, grimy, dirty assault on the senses, where the grey, monolithic colossi that are the city’s skyscrapers loom over its residents like an army of sinister iron giants, trapping them in an urban nightmare of destitution and depression.
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s barrage of noir inflected nihilism centres around rookie paramedic, Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan), whose time is split between night shifts and studying for a medical degree. He is an idealistic young man who sees his work as a vocation and lives in a rundown apartment in Chinatown to avoid the necessity for a second job, redirecting the bought time to his studies. Cross develops a professional and ultimately personal friendship with veteran paramedic Gene Rutkowsky (Sean Penn). While not entirely amoral, Rutkowsky, or “Rut” as he’s often aptly called, is no idealist. So low has his faith sunk, in fact, that he drives his ambulance around the streets of New York with a cocktail stick nonchalantly hanging out of his mouth, in keeping with his emotionally distant machismo.
According to Black Flies, the world of the New York paramedic is one dominated by filthy alleyways, rusty metal, graffiti-stained corridors and blood. Lots of it. Sauvaire’s almost documentarian realism in his depiction of the job is admirably immersive, relentlessly macabre, and lacking in levity to such an extent that to watch it is to be well nigh repulsed by it; and the filmmaker, faithful to the reality of the work, would have it no other way.
The stomach-churning repulsion elicited by the film is heightened further by Michael Pitt’s gruesomely energetic performance as Cross’s sometime partner, an obnoxious yob who steals drugs from his patient’s haemorrhaging bodies and gladly admits to playing god when the ambulance doors close. But this is arguably one of the things that instils the film with intrigue beyond its head-rattling nihilism – the contradiction of such destructive and violent personalities operating in a duty of care. The unpleasant ferocity of Pitt’s medic and the chain of vignettes grow ever more morbidly wrenching, testing Cross’s will, morality and sanity.
It’s not without moments of tiresome jolts and a wildly unedifying, merciless tone, but if viewers can stomach it, it’s an experience of oddly cathartic release.
Black Flies does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
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