Rock Bottom – Asphalt City (2024)

There are so many movies coming out each week that it’s already difficult enough to keep track of them all without multiple (delayed) larger-scale projects needing my attention. There are also many other recent films I would like to write about. However, the overwhelming tension reverberating through my body after Asphalt City was over forced me to bump it to the top.

How a grim and brutal look at the lives and struggles of first responders tapped into the helpless feeling of America’s Youth

The blare of ambulance sirens fills the night air with noise and color. A young EMT tries to ready himself because, in this world, that is the calm before the storm. A man lies on the sidewalk, bleeding to death from multiple gunshot wounds while the overlapping chatter of onlookers goes from white noise to a deafening swell. There is no space to hear yourself think as chaos comes in many shapes and sizes, but things need to move quickly when someone’s life hangs in the balance. That is where we first make landfall with this film and there’s little respite.

It has been six years in between feature films for director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire but it’s great to see him come out of the gates swinging…a fitting metaphor since his last film (A Prayer Before Dawn) centered on prison Muay Thai fights. And, like a good Muay Thai fight Sauvaire digs into the body early and often.

I have seen criticisms saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that the movie thinks it’s more real than it is…well, no shit Sherlock! It’s a scripted feature film, not a documentary. The whole point is to use the cinematic medium to amplify the story’s core idea. In this case, it’s meant to shed light on the psychological and emotional burden of first responders…in sharp graphic detail. In fairness, that message does get a little buried amid the mayhem and if you don’t stay past the end credits (like many people don’t) then you won’t even see that spelled out explicitly.

Interestingly enough, the script comes from a trio of writers: Shannon Burke, Ryan King, and Ben Mac Brown. Of whom, the latter two have primarily acting credits to their names and I think that works to this film’s benefit as an actor-friendly vehicle. Whether that’s in the hands of a character who is out of their depth in the big city or the veteran mentor who is burned out and has burned through his meaningful relationships in the name of duty or the nihilistic psychopath who seems to hate the job, the people he’s supposed to help, and is more or less an adrenaline junkie who just wants to be involved in the train wreck. There is a lot of complexity that makes up these characters and the screenplay allows space for all that to come out while still being a pretty white-knuckle experience.

Let’s start with the rookie, Ollie Cross. He is the lead, after all. And while I haven’t seen a ton of Tye Sheridan’s work (maybe 8-10 films) this is probably the most robust performance I have seen from him. The fish-out-of-water story where the small-town kid goes to the big city and gets more than he bargained for isn’t new, but there’s a reason that kind of story gets told repeatedly and it’s used here because we need an outsider to highlight all the things in the city that are taken for granted as “normal”. Right from that opening scene Sheridan hones in on that frequency, and watching his idealism get slowly eroded by the realities of his job is distressing.

The reason it’s sad to watch isn’t just because his hopes and dreams are progressively deteriorating. It’s because the script also taps into a general sense of hopelessness that has permeated the American mythos, especially that of younger Americans. This notion that no matter what you do, how hard you work, how good you are, it’s never enough to get ahead. The constant struggle of swimming against the current to the point where you eventually exhaust yourself and are overcome. Maybe it’s anecdotal but, according to a recent Gallup-Walton Family Report, Gen Z has the poorest mental health of any generation with little optimism about the future. It’s not an accident that Sheridan is right on the Gen Z cusp. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but news coverage doesn’t exactly paint an overwhelming glowing outlook and my physical reaction to this movie was exhausting. However, despite everything that transpires in this story the filmmakers left us with some hope and that comes from the character writing.

When we look at Sean Penn’s character, Gene Rutkovsky, this is a guy who has given everything to the job and has gone past the point in his own life where he can accurately gauge whether or not it’s even worth it. He presents as an honorable character but the more time we spend with him and the more we see what it’s cost him in the name of “duty” the more we begin to realize that his sense of loyalty is misplaced. As a result, he is unknowingly looking for someone or something to blame for his decisions but because he doesn’t have the capacity for that he settles for trying to teach the rookie how to survive what the job demands. Penn is an incredibly talented actor and this was a reminder of how commanding he can be.

If Penn’s Rutkovsky is the middle of the spectrum, Michael Pitt’s Lafontaine is the complete opposite end. Worn down by years of serving a community he believes hates him, he is eager to return the favor. Jaded beyond any point of return, he takes joy in having power over the weak and the injured in his care. Pitt is a very underrated talent and this role in particular reminds me of something that would have gone to Michael Rappaport had it been made 20 years ago.

And let’s not forget Mike Tyson is the fucking Fire Department Chief Burroughs. Imagine reporting for work and Tyson is your boss…you know it’s going to be wild. I don’t know that I can say much more without getting into plot specifics that I don’t want to give away, but I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t make some acknowledgments.

Firstly, Sound Supervisor/Sound Designer/Re-recording mixer Ken Yasumoto deserves a ton of credit. His influence on the film cannot be overstated because the sound design is essential to the experience. I could never really get comfortable and that’s the point. You don’t want to necessarily feel like you are under a weighted blanket of noise, but it’s done with purpose and intent here. Secondly, the makeup department and the VFX team did an amazing job with the viscera. I hesitate to say gore because this isn’t a horror film, but the kind of practical work on display would be welcome in that genre. There are a couple of gnarly scenes in particular that highlight the skill involved, but I will let you all discover that for yourselves.

Recommendation: Backed by strong character writing, powerful performances, and effective aesthetic designs, this is a well-executed film that gets its point across. However, if you suffer from anxiety you may want to skip over this one.

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