Rating: 3 out of 5
Freddie Gibbs has one of the most distinct visages in contemporary hip-hop. Not that he has a distinct look as a Teezo Touchdown or famously pronounced (or mispronounced?) facial tattoos as a 21 Savage but Gibbs is undoubtedly one of the most handsome men in the game. This makes him an obvious candidate to star in motion pictures and director Diego Ongaro knew this intimately when he contacted Gibbs during quarantine to star in his film Down With the King. Viewing this at the Austin Film Festival with Gibbs and Ongaro in attendance, it was obvious who the rising star was both on and off screen. Gibbs carries himself with a presence and charisma that is completely earnest and intoxicatingly genuine that translates perfectly to cinema. His acting is the vibrant pulse that elevates an otherwise less than essential piece into something meaningful and vital. Down With the King is akin to a dozen or so independent films that already exist thematically, aesthetically and structurally but what they don’t feature is a man currently amidst the peak of his artistic powers trying on the clothes of another medium and pulling off the new threads effortlessly.
The film begins with our protagonist Mercury Maxwell (Freddie Gibbs) walking on the perimeter of his woodland property in a fur coat where a tree has fallen. The juxtaposition is lazy but crucial to the director’s self-proclaimed “fish-out-of-water” story, a luxurious rapper creatively lost amongst a dense unforgiving wilderness. Maxwell has two close relationships that define the film, his neighbor Bob (Bob Tarasuk) and Michaele (Jamie Neumann) who works at a local hardware store that Maxwell frequents, eventually (and obviously) becoming a love interest and foil to Maxwell’s philosophy and lifestyle. These relationship dynamics, while somewhat challenged by an uneven script, are the obvious highlight of the film, Tarasuk and Gibbs in particular have a chemistry that is exhilaratingly natural. Neumann and Gibbs sell a passionate, unlikely romance that will leave the audience wishing the whole way home that these two could just spend more time together if not for the powers of circumstance and fate.
The screenplay gets in the way of this film utilizing and achieving its potential. There is so much opportunity for originality in this film, yet whenever the writers are presented with the chance to they seem to go out of their way to avoid meaningful scenes and dynamic moments. Each instant would be tonally flat if not for the actors who frankly deserve better than what they are getting. The script’s clumsy attempts at “metaphors” and emotional affectation are a byproduct of the performances rather than because of a particularly eloquent sentence; the insight is all physical or muscular and seldom verbalized. The cinematography is occasionally gorgeous in the exteriors but struggles to sustain the same quality when the characters enter interiors. Thematically Maxwell is supposed to be suffocated by the confines of the inside, a claustrophobic closeness was the intent but instead it reads as placid, lame and inert rather than deliberate.
Down With the King is nothing if not conflicted, while the premise is technically engaging the execution is otherwise. This is a film that excites the audience with what it could be rather than what it is. There are a myriad of moments that conceptually fail because this is an independent film, ambitious sequences that should’ve been expunged from the script long before production began, notably a concert where Maxwell begins to fall to pieces. For the psychology of this scene to be properly executed, scale was required, and this is often where the faulty script begins to encroach on the actor’s extraordinary performances. There are too many conversations filmed through Facetime or conflicts displayed in miniature rather than blown up to the proportions of the star that we are supposed to believe that Maxwell is. The life he was supposedly escaping was loud, rambunctious and overwhelming but when we catch glimpses into this world he wants to leave behind we are only given peeks rather than a a healthy glance, which inference and ambiguity often aid character psychology but this is only true when such scarcity is purposeful. In Down With the King this barrenness often comes across as a limitation of budget more than a thematic or stylistic decision.
With all that said, this was the best film I was able to see at the Austin Film Festival this year. While it might not be a staggering work of profundity, it’s a serviceable film elevated by a phenomenal ensemble and anchored by a magnetic Freddie Gibbs. The most riveting scenes are Maxwell huddled up in his cabin transcribing lyrics and parsing through beats or when we see the humility and grace he displays to those around him. Down With the King works best as a portrait of a flawed human earnestly trying to become better both as an artist and a man. Down With the King? All hail Freddie Gibbs.