‘Black Flies’ Review: Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan Star in a Gritty, Gloomy EMT Thriller

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s hard-hitting portrayal of Brooklyn paramedics premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

You may want to think twice about calling 911 after seeing Black Flies, a ruthless chronicle of New York City paramedics that plays like a full-blown urban war film, with Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan saving lives and losing their shit in a Brooklyn hellscape.

Heart-stopping, quite literally speaking, and extremely stylized, the first U.S. feature from French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (A Prayer Before Dawn) takes cues from Taxi DriverThe French Connection and other down-and-dirty Big Apple thrillers — not to mention Martin Scorsese’s 1999 paramedics tale, Bringing out the Dead — portraying the city as a giant cesspool of open wounds and busted lives. Best when it delves into the nitty and very gritty details of EMT work in rough neighborhoods, worst when it tries to sustain emotions with a bare-bones storyline and flat characters, the film premiered in Cannes’ main competition but feels more suitable for the fest’s Midnight section.

Black Flies

The Bottom Line Has a pulse, but lacks heart.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Sean Penn, Michael Pitt, Katherine Waterston, Mike Tyson, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Ries
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Screenwriters: Ben Mac Brown, Ryan King, based on the novel by Shannon Burke
2 hours
Penn has rarely seemed as cruddy and crestfallen as he does here, playing a vet paramedic named Gene Rutkovsky who’s only a divorce or two away from tying the late Larry King’s record. Working the night shift in crime-ridden Brownsville and East New York, he tries to save all the gunshot and overdose victims his NYFD ambulance races around town to help, but his outlook on the world is closer to that of Travis Bickle than Florence Nightingale. “They almost never make it,” he bluntly says from the start, and the film winds up proving him right many times over.

Enter Ollie Cross (Sheridan), the Ethan Hawke to Penn’s Denzel Washington in this gloomy variation on Training Day, although Black Flies lacks that film’s nail-biting plot and nonstop tension. The proverbial fish out of water in the big city, Cross is a Colorado boy who’s come to town to take the MCATs and kickstart his medical career. He signs up as an EMT in order to pay his rent and clearly doesn’t know what he’s getting in to, losing a patient his very first night on the job while under Rutkvosky’s watch, after which things only get worse.

Based on the 2008 novel by Shannon Burke, a former ambulance driver who went on to create the series Outer Banks, the original story was set in Harlem in the 1990s, which screenwriters Ben Mac Brown and Ryan King have updated to the roughest parts of present-day Brooklyn. Sauvaire and his cinematographer David Ungaro (Donnybrook) capture a level of New York grit that, with the exception of the Safdie brothers, is rarely seen on the big or small screen nowadays, building a vibrant, violent backdrop reminiscent of films from the 1960s and 70s.

It can be too much at times, with constantly flashing red lights à la Gaspar Noé (with whom Sauvaire once worked) and a soundscape of blaring sirens, screeching overhead subways and screams of victims dying in horrible pain. There are certainly moments when Black Flies crosses over into pure exploitation territory, sometimes questionably so. Beyond a cameo by native Brownsville boy Mike Tyson as the EMT station manager, and a late role by Gbenga Akinnagbe as Cross’ new partner, this is basically a film where gung-ho working-class white guys go into dangerous, heavily Black and Latino communities and — just like in Taxi Driver — it winds up driving them over the edge.

This takes a while to happen, and the film suffers from a droning rhythm that delivers much of the same thing. What keeps us relatively interested are all the squeamishly visceral scenes of paramedical interventions, which Sauvaire, whose last feature was a Thai martial arts flick, captures like action sequences, although instead of knives and guns he employs shears, bandages, defibrillators and Laryngoscopes. Both Penn and Sheridan seem in their element at such moments, and Black Flies works best when it almost plays like a documentary about EMT workers going through hell and high water.

Eventually Penn’s war-torn Rutkvosky has seen and had enough, taking one mission too far (or rather not far enough) and putting his career in jeopardy. Cross, meanwhile, is unable to sustain his relationship with the single mom (Raquel Nave) he met earlier on in a nightclub, pushing her away in a violent bout of sex fueled by his on-the-job trauma. The trainee’s exam prep isn’t going great, either, with too much noise from his “Chinese lunatic” neighbors breaking his concentration at home, and more problems at work when he’s forced to partner up with a bro-ish New Yawk nutjob (Michael Pitt).

The problem is that we never care enough about Cross or Rutkvosky to be stirred by their harrowing downfalls or potential resurrections. They feel like stock characters surrounded by a hyper-real world, which Sauvaire is more zealous about depicting than the inner lives of his two protagonists. He’s got style to boot and he isn’t afraid to use it, overcompensating for the lack of actual drama. By the end, Black Flies leaves the viewer battered, bruised and bleeding out on the sidewalk, but never fully captivated.