In limited theatrical release June 4 and Video on Demand June 8.
Three truant teenagers in a rough South Los Angeles neighborhood, seething with rage, court danger as they seek thrills and revenge, fueled by alcohol and drugs, and defy anyone in their way – until there are devastating consequences.
A vile and disturbing film, “Gully” wastes its promising cast with a choppy story that focuses on a barrage of brutal assaults, out-of-control partying and dead-end lives without much connection.
In the shadow of far better coming-of-age stories in desperate places, “Gully” isn’t remotely “Boyz n the Hood” for a 21st century audience. This is an ultra-violent exercise without purpose, hope or emotional resonance. It could be compared to the appalling sadism in another dystopian future, “A Clockwork Orange.” But here, after the rampage, the retribution feels incomplete.
First-time director Nabil Elderkin, who became known for music videos with recording stars Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, Frank Ocean and Travis Scott, who has a cameo, uses those edgy quick-cut techniques – but fumbles at presenting a cohesive narrative. He jumbles the tone and style so much that he fails to engage us. What he is trying to say with his visual choices isn’t clear. Is it only for shock?
For the action, Elderkin mimics a video game the guys are playing as how they take to the streets, wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of broken bodies. The lines are blurred – are we inside Grand Theft Auto? Fantasy sequences are used -- but are disruptive and take us out of the story.
In a bleak script by Marcus J. Guillory, which was developed at the Sundance Institute, the three troubled boys are close friends who are more like each other’s family.
Jesse (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was abducted as a child and now is mute. Nicky (Charlie Plummer) lives with his struggling single mother (Amber Heard) and has a pregnant girlfriend. Calvin (Jacob Latimore) is a mouthy punk with a hair-trigger temper and mental health red flags. His mother (Robin Givens) frets about his violent outbursts but feels helpless.
Their trauma should make the characters sympathetic, but Guillory’s sketchy characterizations only elicit a modicum of pity and not much attachment. Their hopeless situations lead to explosive actions – but can it really be excused?
The mothers, however, appear to care and have tried to do the best they can, given the circumstances.
Harrison, Latimore and Plummer are all rising stars who deserve better material. If it was just about surviving in a harsh environment, we could understand, but the severity of the graphic violence that transpires is too off-putting.
Harrison’s Jesse is the most tragic figure. He is not wild and unruly like the other two. He narrates the film, repeating the obvious. Harrison, such a standout in “Waves,” “The Birth of a Nation” and “Luce,” and recently seen as Fred Hampton in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” is one of our finest young actors. He can hold our attention with one tear streaming down his face.
As he showed in “The Chi,” Latimore has a charismatic, energetic presence but is such an irredeemable thug as Calvin, he is hard to watch.
Plummer’s Nicky, with his wide mood swings, is harder to read. The actor, who favors indies, was noteworthy in “Words on Bathroom Walls” and “All the Money in the World.”
Terrence Howard plays Mr. Christmas, a homeless dude who dispense philosophy to anyone who will listen. He travels the streets with a cardboard sign, “Free Inner Net,” on top of his cart. He is not exactly a Greek chorus, but is there meaning behind what he’s saying? He has a scene post-climax that puts a kink in the narrative.
More confusion occurs by adding Majors, another rising star (“Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country”), who plays likable Greg, a neighbor who just got out of prison. With the aid of his supportive mother, he is trying to get his life back on track and tries to be there for these boys. An entirely separate film could have been made about his journey.
Why law enforcement isn’t on to them sooner -- until someone leaves a phone at a crime scene – is a nagging question (and there are many). It seems unrealistic, especially as an ever-present L.A.P.D. helicopter flies over their neighborhood.
With its messy structure and extreme savagery, “Gully” doesn’t come across as the cry for help filmmakers likely aimed for, because we can’t relate to the unapologetic lack of humanity. What does it add to the theme of survival in a harsh environment?
“Gully” was shown at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and only now is opening in theaters. It runs at a mere 81 minutes, and sadly, is pointless.