Death on the Streets is a rather sensationalist title for what’s ultimately a low-key slab of miserablism served up by Danish director Johan Carlsen. A one-note affair that mistakes topicality for depth, the film bends over backwards to present a “naturalistic” portrait of Midwest American strife that feels as inauthentic as the likes of such misguided studio pap as Hillbilly Elegy. Never-ending shots of corn fields and Kroger parking lots filled with pick-up trucks situate us squarely in the heartland, where the sun-kissed skies and seemingly endless acres of fertile farmland hint at a modest prosperity that eludes struggling farmhand Kurt (Zack Mulligan), a taciturn man desperate to support his wife and two kids. Refusing to take what he deems as handouts from friends and families — at least 20 of this film’s 90 minutes are devoted to people offering money — Kurt abandons his family out of the blue and heads to Atlantic City, taking on odd jobs and living on the streets to save up a little money to send to his loved ones, with whom he foregoes any sort of contact.
Death on the Streets is obvious in a way that borders on insulting. Carlsen and co-writer Micah Magee seem to be under the delusion that the story sketched here is somehow revelatory, as if viewers are entirely clueless to the struggles facing middle-class America, that poverty and homelessness can take on many forms and indeed affect millions. Countless Malickian shots of the natural beauty of middle America serve as an ironic contrast to the hardships faced by its inhabitants, while Atlantic City is presented as a depressing, gray nightmare where passersby barely flinch as they step over the body of a sleeping homeless man. Kurt’s pride ultimately sends him on a journey to which there can be no positive outcome, the film going out of its way to punish and humiliate him in ways that feel wholly unearned. Casting Mulligan in the leading role is the smartest thing Carlsen did, as the young man’s real-life troubled past was highlighted in 2018’s brilliant documentary Minding the Gap. If anything, Kurt feels like a natural extension of the Zack we saw in that film, a kindhearted but temperamental fuck-up whose good intentions were stymied by a lack of healthy familial support and growing up on the lower-rungs of an economically-depressed city. As presented here, Kurt is a blank slate, and it’s this prior cinematic exposure to Mulligan that does some heavy lifting the script fails to and fills in the gaps in a way that might not have been intended but prove sorely necessary. It also doesn’t help matters that the film fails to acknowledge that Kurt is so obviously struggling from severe clinical depression, and to even imply that this psycho-emotional circumstance is solely the result of his monetary struggles is both reductive and downright irresponsible.
Carlsen works overtime to infuse his film with a sense of naturalism, going so far as to hire a majority of non-professional actors, but rather than bolster his ethos, their lack of experience only proves distracting. The dialogue certainly isn’t doing them any favors, as it sounds like it was written by a galactic traveler whose only familiarity with Midwesterners is through bad television and movies. There are exchanges in this film that wouldn’t be out of place in the likes of The Room or Birdemic in terms of both writing quality and bonkers line delivery. The addition of a side character obsessed with nunchucks and ‘80s metal is especially perplexing, as it is tonally at odds with everything around it and comes across as rather mean-spirited, a case of “let’s all laugh at the weirdo” a la Napoleon Dynamite. And that’s beside impossible to parse moments, such as a scene where a woman tries to register Kurt to vote and he refuses by exclaiming, “I don’t give a shit what happens in this country.” Is the film blaming Kurt for his own predicament, or is it rather indicting an establishment that led to such feelings? If Death on the Streets has any sort of firm answer on its mind, it certainly isn’t sharing it with us, opting instead to end with a shot of a harvested field as it decays in cold winter months, punctuating its poverty porn approach with one final moment of self-serious metaphor-making on the way out.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 2.