I haven't seen New York in months. Because I live with someone science deems "high-risk" for a deadly airborne disease, I've stayed home in New Jersey for most of 2020. I spent the summer watching cities march against systemic injustice from the quiet safety of my home office, far away from tear gas and rubber bullets. I've never felt more like a coward just staring at screens. I felt a similar pang again last week when the streets of New York erupted into a masked, outdoor dance party following the electoral results. I stayed home still, feeling like a nerd at home during college spring break.
You would call this FOMO. I call it letting the world pass me by, and the totality of 2020 has left me not only powerless but tremendously alone.
And then I watched Bushwick, a 2017 movie starring Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista that's leaving Netflix on November 23.
While hardly a panacea for whatever spiritual ills I've got, there's a visceral rush to the movie afforded by Alfred Hitchcock-inspired one-take direction and immersion of a city descending into chaos. While its potency was at its strongest during its Sundance premiere in January 2017 (mere months after the traumatic 2016 election), there's still a lot of relevant juice in Bushwick thanks to its broad political urgency.
Directed by the duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, Bushwick is an immersive action thriller about an insurgent invasion in the heart of hipster Brooklyn. On an unsuspecting winter day, Lucy (Brittany Snow) finds herself in the middle of a sudden, city-wide invasion of black-clad mercenaries. Teaming up with an ex-Marine medic and janitor, Stupe (Dave Bautista), the two fight their way through the neighborhood to reach an extraction point.
I'm not sure if revealing who the insurgents are counts as a spoiler. It's treated as such in the film, you don't find out the true purpose of these shadowy forces until the middle of Act 2, but Netflix's clunky automatic previews play the very scene it's revealed. So let's compromise and say that Bushwick taps into a theoretical new American Civil War, one that is becoming less theoretical now as Trump continues to refuse concession.
Bushwick is a smarter action movie than you think it is and dumber socio-political commentary than it wants to be. Milott and Murnion (along with cinematographer Lyle Vincent) know precisely how to put you — yes YOU, the viewer — into its characters' footsteps as it makes the most out of its "one-take" approach. (Edits are cleverly broken up by zoom-ins on stair steps, walls, and dark rooms. There is one instance of a cross-fade at the end of Act 2, which begins a new "take.")
The film never forgets to shoot at eye-level. Through the camera, you always feel only as tall as the 5-foot-4 Snow, making the 6-foot-6 Bautista tower like an orcish giant. Bautista's wide shoulders take up so much onscreen real estate you often feel the need to look over his shoulders. This isn't a bug but a feature — his presence is a comfort, allowing you to believe that someone like Lucy, dwarfed by an oversized scarf when we meet her, has a fighting chance of making it alive.
While there's brains in Bushwick's filming, its political arguments are lacking. The movie's positions are obvious and lack subtlety, yet fall short of being meaningful. That the movie has a downer ending comes off more nihilistic than compelling. Again, it's hard without delving into spoilers as the film is keen to make its whole picture central to its dramatic tension. (Maybe don't watch the trailer.) But Bushwick makes it clear how left of center it falls on the blue/red spectrum, even if it flirts with a pro-gun narrative woven into the script.
Still, there's one bright spot, aside from Bautista's remarkable performance as an exposed bruise with a soul. In the film, Brooklyn is deemed "soft" by the villains for its "ethno-diversity," a delicious angle that should ding the scriptwriters if the real world didn't constantly underestimate the ballsiness of New Yorkers, the city's unity, and its willingness to fight.
In the end, Bushwick paints an ideal portrait of New York even when it is ugly, raw, and violent for the vast majority of its running time. There's a division in the city; no one believes a photogenic white girl like Lucy is native to the neighborhood, nor is there any sense of unity when bodega shop owners are knifed over candy. And if it weren't for Bautista, a half-Filipino actor, Bushwick would be uncomfortable given its antagonistic depiction of most people of color (at least before the true villains are revealed).
The movie doesn't properly earn its united front in the climax, when the diversity of the borough charges forward and takes cover behind playground slides and tree trunks. But maybe the movie doesn't have to because we know that New York always will.
Bushwick is streaming now on Netflix until November 23.