A descent into hell in a New York City you won’t recognize: “ASPHALT CITY”

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “Asphalt City” is a film that injects its nearly nonstop intensity into the the veins of the audience from the first shot. The director sees the darker side of the New York City night as a whacked-out boulevard of death awash in the pulsating red lights of the ambulances, cop cars, and fire engines that cut through the detritus of the city.

Tye Sheridan is Ollie Cross, a rookie paramedic in his first few weeks on the job. Working on his MCAT in the hope of being a doctor. Ollie rides in an ambulance all over the East New York and Brownsville areas of Brooklyn with senior partner Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), nicknamed “Rut”. Using a linear, yet episodic approach, the two men slice through the New York night helping drug addicts, gunshot victims, the mentally ill, domestic abuse victims, and more.

Rut seems even-tempered and quiet, but there is a lot of pain behind that weathered face. The character seems untouched by the near-daily violence and tragedy he must witness, but as the film continues, a deeper personal anguish begins to reveal itself. Harsh memories of being a first responder on 9/11, broken marriages, and a daughter he loves but barely sees are becoming a weight he cannot carry. Coupled with the bloody streets he serves almost every night, Rut is beginning to boil over.

Sean Penn is one of the few actors left who respects the craft, and Sauvaire’s film gives him one of his deepest roles in some time. The actor perfectly embodies a soul who is fed up with the world and tries his best to rise above it, though he cannot seem to achieve this moral goal. Penn brings a stark realism to the character while infusing a small charm in certain scenes. This is a grump of a man who seems too burned out to connect with anyone, but there are moments when he becomes endearing to Ollie, and to the audience. These scenes, coupled with Penn’s remarkable skill as an actor. make Rut all the more heartbreaking by the film’s end. With a precise approach to the character that captures a myriad of emotion, Sean Penn reminds us why he is the best actor of his generation.

Constantly confronted with the brutality of their calls, Ollie seems to be treading emotional water and slowly cracking under the nonstop pressures of the job. Sheridan is perfect in the role, giving an intense and focused performance. The actor understands the importance of dramatic silences and uses them quite well, allowing us to feel Ollie’s emotions through just a look in his eyes. When his feelings boil over into a mixture of fear, rage and sadness, Sheridan never goes overboard, keeping his performance realistic and relatable. This is excellent work from a fine young actor.
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The screenplay by Ben Mac Brown and Ryan King (based on the novel Black Flies by Shannon Burke, a former EMT) effectively portrays the dangers (both mental and physical) of the profession and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. The intensity felt in almost every call they take burns with savage realism, their line of work being one that is relentlessly unforgiving.

It is in the portrayals of their world outside of the job where the film falters. Rut’s ex-wife, Nancy (a wasted Katherine Waterston), can’t stand being near him. Waterston gets only one scene and little dialogue, failing to properly establish the emotional crevice between her and Rut. Ollie finds romance of sorts with Clara (Raquel Nave). Their conversations are too few and the director crafts their relationship as mostly sexual, so when the two have an “incident” that destroys their coupling, it is difficult to care.

Actress on the rise, Kali Reis, has an important moment that represents the impossible ethical decisions paramedics sometimes face. Her role of an HIV positive mother is undercooked, but is crucial to the morality of the piece. Despite the role needing more intricate design, Reis is very good.

The only other character to carry any weight is Michale Pitt’s Lafontaine, a burned out medic with a violent streak who looks down on those he finds unsaveable. Playing judge, jury, and executioner, Lafontaine is immediately at odds with Ollie, sending them on a dangerous path that will come to a physical reckoning.

Cinematographer David Ungaro creates a visual tone that assures Asphalt City is unflinchingly grim, making the NYC locations into a menacing hellscape of crime and violence. As Wagner’s “Vorspiel to Das Rheingold” builds its power over the imagery, Ungaro’s camera casts a Dante-esque spell over the doomed world in which Ollie and Rut exist. This stylized depiction works in unison with director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s vision of the story. One issue for audiences might be the sometimes-too-close visual similarities to Martin Scorsese’s 1999 picture, Bringing Out the Dead. In that film, Robert Richardson painted nighttime New York in the same manner; a real-world Hell bathed in the red and blue lights of the paramedics as their vehicles cut through the night. While the visual similarities are sometimes unshakeable, Sauvaire makes it his own. In time, the film settles into its style and becomes a good companion piece to the Scorsese work.

Awash in a world of pain and immorality and the right amount of earned pessimism, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “Asphalt City” is merciless in its depictions of both mental and physical trauma. With two strong lead performances and a commitment to its realistic depictions of paramedics on and off the job, the film becomes a gripping psychological study of the scars these brave men and women will carry with them for life.

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