Review: Death on the Streets
- Johan Carlsen’s drama tells the story of a hopeless young man struggling to provide for his family
One of the out of competition titles presented during this year’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival is Johan Carlsen’s drama Death on the Streets, which follows Headlock, his debut feature, released in 2011. The story, penned by the director together with Micah Magee (here also acting as a producer), follows the misfortunes of a modern-day farmer from Illinois, a young man called Kurt (played by Zack Mulligan), who ends up jobless and struggles to provide for his family of two sons and a caring wife (Katie Folger). Kurt shows himself as a proud, stubborn and hopeless man from the very start. Everyone around him, including his family and friends, seems worried and more or less genuinely willing to help. Nevertheless, Kurt is overwhelmed by his sense of responsibility and refuses any kind of support.
In the backdrop are the American countryside, a fervently religious mother and a rather traditional community barbecuing and celebrating the 4th of July. Nothing and nobody seems able to console Kurt, who ultimately decides to leave the town, live homeless and get by as a construction worker. Even in his new location, some generous help could come in handy, but the man remains proud and tries to convince others (and primarily himself) that he will soon be able to “get back on his feet.”
A recent title which echoes Carlsen’s drama is Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, whose plot focuses on a Newcastle family strangled by debt and struggling to put bread on the table day by day. However, while Loach was successful in creating a fair amount of tension throughout the tale, exploring in depth the complex dynamics of the dysfunctional family hit by the hardship of the post-Great Recession years and depicting the lead character’s involution, in Death on the Streets, Carlsen offers a flat and much more predictable protagonist, who essentially begins and completes his arc with an unchanging approach to life, feelings and reactions. Kurt, convincingly apathetic but resolute, offers very little room for the viewer’s pleasure of discovery, despite a good performance from Mulligan. In this respect, the slow, almost contemplative pace of the narration may even discourage and disengage viewers.
On a more positive note, the cinematography is crafted without frills and renders well the sun-drenched rural landscapes, occasionally ruined by overbuilding, and the foggy, stormy environment of Kurt’s new destination. This visual style also sits a social realist film of this kind. The film occasionally ventures into comedy, in moments which were probably inserted in an attempt to lighten up the mood of the piece – the presence of Kurt’s bizarre friend for example, or the national anthem scene performed on Independence Day – but these fail to accomplish their task and prove to be ineffective digressions from the main narrative path. The rigid writing of the lead character is the main flaw in this work by Carlsen, who could have taken advantage of the timely theme of America’s broken dream and unpack it in a more interesting (and more profound) fashion.
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