‘Black Flies’ Review: Saving Lives Is Hell in Brutal Sean Penn Drama

Cannes 2023: Penn and Tye Sheridan play paramedics in Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s unrelentingly ugly film

Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan in Asphalt City
"Asphalt City" (Roadside Attractions/Vertical)

It’s probably instructive to go into “Black Flies” knowing that the title comes from insects that can smell death before we can, and that show up on screen swarming a dead, rotting body in a bathtub.

And it might help to know that the drone that gradually surfaces under the hysterical opening scene resolves itself into the overture to “Das Rheingold,” which returns at the end of the film. “Black Flies” is darkness and chaos on an operatic scale – maybe even a Wagnerian scale, though viewers may feel as if they’ve been assaulted by heavy metal (say, Judas Priest’s “Evil Never Dies,” which also appears in the film) rather than immersed in the warring gods of the Ring cycle.

Screening in the Main Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, “Black Flies” is visceral and vicious. It is directed by French-born, New York-based Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire with an eye for the worst squalor NYC has to offer, and edited to be the kind of unrelenting barrage that can be thrilling when it doesn’t go so far overboard as to be infuriating.

Then again, it seems that the very point of the existence of “Black Flies” is to go overboard. Sauvaire’s first two features, “Johnny Mad Dog” and “A Prayer Before Dawn,” were brutal looks at child soldiers and prison, respectively, and “Black Flies” immediately insists that the world of New York paramedics isn’t going to be any kinder.

It starts with Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) in the back of an ambulance on his way to a scene where multiple people have been shot. The scene is set in quick flashes of Ollie, his gloves, the flashing light, and with a cacophony of blaring sirens, shouts and gasps for air; then the back doors to the ambulance open, and the chaos really begins. The opening sequence is loud and bloody and profane and deliberately as disorienting to us as it is to Ollie – and it ends with dead people, a stunned paramedic and a sense that these particular mean streets are so mean that you might as well stay home.  

Ollie’s home, though, is a squalid Chinatown dump, his girlfriend a single mother and their frequent sex scenes shot to be as graphic, sad and desperate as possible. If they go to a club to blow off steam, it’s an industrial dance-metal nightmare.

And when Ollie teams up with Sean Penn’s veteran paramedic Rutkovsky (whom everyone calls Rut), there’s precious little get-to-know-you chat, just a line or two between nightmarish stops. When Ollie finally unburdens himself by talking about his mother’s suicide, Rut replies, “You’re not gonna get all weepy on me, are ya?” And when Rut relaxes enough to tell a joke, it’s about a pedophile.

One of the points of the film, which is based on the 2008 novel by Shannon Burke, is that nobody thanks the paramedics – and in Sauvaire’s version, nobody does. They get yelled at and insulted by drug addicts, gang bangers, Chinese laundromat owners (people of color do not fare well in this telling).

Anytime the film can stack the deck, it does. If the call is to help a 63-year-old man who’s having trouble breathing, it’ll take place in a slaughterhouse where animals are being butchered in the next room; if there’s a pregnant woman in trouble, she’ll be an HIV-positive former junkie who’s not taking her meds to keep the baby safe and who eases the pain of childbirth with heroin; if a man calls for help because his wife’s face is bruised from “falling down,” his argument with the paramedics will happen exactly when a subway train is roaring by, shaking an apartment that lies right next to the elevated tracks.  

The film is a virtuoso job of editing as assault, and there’s something impressive about how far the film goes in service of depicting misery. Penn’s sullen visage pretty much defines grizzled, with a jagged toothpick barely protruding from his mouth most of the time; Ollie has dreams of med school if he can only pass the MSAT, but he’s the walking wounded from the first time he appears on screen.

Eventually, the film gets around to exploring issues of morality in an immoral and unfair environment, and to asking if it’s possible to be an angel of mercy when you spend your days in hell. You can guess the answer – and if you don’t want to guess, Sauvaire will show you an answer splattered across the sidewalk and the screen.

There are grace notes to be found here and there in “Black Flies,” but they ring hollow. The movie wears its unpleasantness like a badge of honor and is as blunt and unfriendly as the look on Sean Penn’s face. Impressive in its single-mindedness, this is nonetheless a movie that dares you to try and like it – and most likely, few will take Sauvaire up on that dare.