The sequel to Django Unchained, with Idris Elba replacing Jamie Foxx, has something that we’re curious about. But there’s nothing to really see, because Concrete Cowboy isn’t a westerner with actors from the Listening series at the helm. Still, it’s an idea the great Tarantino could consider. If you’re past Quentin… More seriously, in this case an understated little drama distributed by giant Netflix, and finally available on the platform.
Seen by a red N at the Toronto festival in 2020, Concrete Cowboy features a 15-year-old teenager played by Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things). This character is forced by his mother to live with his father in Philadelphia. At the start of an unpleasant situation, young Cole will eventually find a passion for horseback riding and will learn the values that accompany this discipline, despite the poverty and violence of his surroundings.
We’re starting to find out about Netflix affiliated movies. Aside from some great productions directed by big directors, like David Fincher (Mank) or Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Netflix content is often disappointing, if not completely forgettable. The Concrete Cowboy has the distinction placed between the two.
It’s worth noting though that this is Ricky Staub’s first film. Details matter in absolute terms, as the film suffers from awkwardness in large part due to the writer’s inexperience in directing. Very few actors, three or four sets, young directors seem to be betting on efficiency, not on the excesses of an ambitious young man first.
Feature films have in their basket, guidelines that appear throughout the entire film. The theme of the region in which the film works and the point that connects it to the west. The American genre par excellence is known globally for having staged Western ideals of conquest. The challenge of taking territory from one camp to another or preserving a piece of space makes this genre so special, fertile ground for questioning identity. The Concrete Cowboy highlights the majority, a community trying to maintain stability. The committee, which is led by Cole’s father (Idris Elba) carries cowboy values.
The parallel story of Cole and his cousin Smush (Jharrel Jerome) captures the same problem. Many of their encounters take place in cars, enclosed spaces that both characters will try to expand in their own way. Smush, for his part, will play a small gangster counter by scavenging the local gang leader’s “territory”. The main bet for him was to get the nest eggs needed to buy farm property in the western United States.
However, this central theme of space never fully reaches its scale through precise and ambitious realizations. And that’s the point. The main drawback, and not least, stems from the fact that despite its glorious subject matter, the staging mechanics are highly predictable. With a few exceptions, which we’ll discuss briefly in the next section, the film misses the point of combining thematic grandeur and inspiring staging.
Encounters with others are at the heart of the Staub set. The spirit of independence, similar to the political dimension of localism, was the founder’s idea of this group gathering around a fire and creating from it, a listening space for the individual. Theses speeches heard by others are also expressed in the film with the cuts. Sequences are generally edited with the same shot value. Staub regularly plays facial performances in tight frames (close-ups or chest shots).
It was from this moment of exchange that Ricky Staub finally succeeded in expressing the idea of staging. Indeed, the frame integrates other faces in the reverse-shooting set. Ricky Straub understands primer in a different way because unlike Cole, interlocutors are generally staged with art. Staub didn’t hesitate to have fun with the depth of field. Alternating between short and long focal lengths, another character that accompanies Cole (Smush or Harp for example) is the one who takes the shot. It’s quite astonishing when we see the exclusive presence of the main character in the picture.
Taking all the same risks is minimal and has been encountered in a large number of feature films. In the end, staging only follows an over-calibrated narrative program, without taking any significant risks. The story is ultimately just a teenager’s development into adulthood, compared to the horses he manages to train.
And while the film is based on the bias of shooting the actors at close range, the final shot is an ascending reverse-tracking shot that shows the family circle in a long shot.The director did not fail to include all members of the surrounding community so that it is not far from the impression of being in a western setting. A game on the values of a very classic plan and without surprises, like the whole movie.