There’s been a lot of hype going around Netflix’s latest action-adventure, The Last Days of American Crime; mostly that it’s a terrible movie and that Netflix should be ashamed of themselves for making it. But, having sat through its 148 minutes run time (138, if you discount the solid 10 minutes of credits), I believe that it’s not that bad a movie. It’s just a bit too long, a bit undercooked, and nihilistic in an unfashionable manner.
The premise of the film is a solid bit of Sci-Fi fair; that a mind-control ray will be activated at the end of the week which will physically stop people from committing acts they know to be illegal. This is a great concept to work with, as it allows for the film to make broad “ooh, gosh. Make’s you think” observations about the importance of free will and throw in a couple of moments about what the impact of this would be. It also allows for everyone in the film to be either really horrible or really grubby, because there needs to be a justification for such a draconian system to be put in place. True, it doesn’t explain why such a thing would be announced with such a public countdown, but that countdown serves the vital purpose of getting the cast to hurry up and get their crime on.
The three main bad people that we follow are Bricke the Gangster, Kevin the wanna-be Gangster, and Shelby the Criminal. All have done bad things, all will do bad things in the movie, and all are going to double-cross people because it’s that kind of world. They all have a lot of justification for how they turned out like they did, but as the story is mostly told through the eyes of Bricke we get to learn the most about his justification in the 20 minutes before we even hit the heist plot. It’s suitably dark, gritty, and horrible, with some high-tension torture thrown in to make sure we know he’s a real horrible bad guy.
We then get an hour of prep for the heist, in which we learn that Kevin is the loony he’s first presented as, Shelby is a femme fatale with a heart of gold (nice idea, hope other films try it someday), and that the world of violent and brutal crime is both brutal and violent. This is all done very well, with some very nice near-future urban decay as background and a lot of great performances of people who have no emotions because they are numb to the pain of their existence.
Because everyone is so freely invested in the life they opted for, the audience doesn’t have much to care about regarding the characters as people. It’s basically every gritty crime film of the last 10 years, just with more honesty and not enough editing. This extends to most of the law enforcement, other than one police officer, played by Sharlto Copley, that we get to see more of but never have time to get to really know because the film needs more time to establish that everything is awful in this USA.
The real interest is in the heist, or rather in the outcome of it. We don’t know enough about the plan, and everyone is incredibly level-headed through it, to get worried about things going wrong. What we do know is that if they don’t complete the job by the time the brainwave signal goes on, they’re screwed. And don’t forget, there is a whole bunch of double and triple crosses about to go down around the heist too. So, we get to see everyone stay incredibly cool as the “who will shoot who” gets played out with a bunch of gunshots, mood lighting, and squelchy sound effects.
At this point, we do get a revival of the mind-control as something more than a ticking clock, and we get to see how people can work their way around it. One is through the application of amorality (pro tip: if your widget works on people feeling guilty, remember that different people feel guilty about different things!), one through the application of pharmaceuticals, and one through blind luck. It’s kind of interesting, but not as interesting as finding out from a background loudspeaker that the rest of the world has decided to quarantine America until they turn the anti-crime ray on.
Now, you’re probably thinking I hated it. Well, I didn’t, because there wasn’t enough to hate on. In fact, everyone gets some really cool moments of looking stylish and all the main characters get multiple scenes to give us some great performances. It also looks quite fantastic, has a lot of violent bits where you can go “whooo”, and knows how to blow things up for a shits and giggles. It’s also got that lingering sense of a moral story being told that keeps you engaged, and enough edginess to make you feel like the characters could be interesting.
What it doesn’t have is a great sense of pace, any real urgency, or a plot half as evolved and insightful as it thinks it does. Were it shown in the cinema I’d have called for 45 minutes of it to be trimmed out, and still objected to the flatness of the characters. But it’s not something to watch in the cinema, it’s for your front room and for dual screening. It’s going to get a million eyeballs on it, as indifferent to the reviews as all the other turkeys that Netflix keep making because they know what you actually will watch.
It’s a journey that you can get through in an evening as easily as three episodes of a new drama. It’s got a consistent pace and characterisation, so you don’t have to pay attention all the time, and by drawing out the scenes and using audio cues it can tell you when you really need to pay attention for a couple of minutes. It’s got just enough texture and grit to make you think like you just sat through something solid, and there is a whole load of Easter eggs to spot that adds to the overall effect. It’s a slice of nihilistic escapism from the static of the current world for people duel-screening and watching this world go crazy in real-time. It’s not great art, it’s a distraction and background noise, but it is perfectly okay wallpaper for a world on fire and that’s all it ever wanted to be.