Deniz Gamze Ergüven is the Turkish film-maker hugely admired for her 2015 debut feature Mustang, about five orphaned sisters growing up in a patriarchal society. Hopes were very high for this English-language followup here at Toronto, but the result is a baffling and frustrating disappointment. There are sparks of interest and some powerful moments, but it is structurally disjointed, tonally uncertain, unfocused and unfinished, with some very broad drama-improv-class acting from the kids and a frankly unrelaxed and undirected performance from Halle Berry.
The setting is Los Angeles, during the Rodney King riots, and the cops’ trials are forever on TV in the background. The title appears to merge Rodney’s surname with that of Martin Luther King Jr, and perhaps alludes to the heroic nobility of those hardworking people having to live their lives while dealing with racism. Halle Berry plays Millie, a woman in South Central who bakes and sells cakes while running in her apartment a refuge for runaways and disadvantaged kids. They range in age from around 6 or 7 to 15: the little kids are running around innocently enough, but the older teens are dealing with growing sexual feelings and the boys need some privacy in which to jerk off — another oddly misjudged comedy scene, adding to the weird cutesiness and playfulness which undermines the desperate seriousness of what is about to happen.
Millie is on her own, but she’s strangely attracted to the highly improbable hunk who lives next door, Obie, played with a Brit accent by Daniel Craig. (She has a fervent erotic dream about him, amusingly presented, and arguably no more random than anything else in this film.) Yet in the opening scene, Obie actually fires a pump-action shotgun out of his window, infuriated by the criminal disorder right by his house, so terrifyingly that Millie and the kids hide under their kitchen table. It sets his character up very strangely: we never see that gun, or really that temper, again.
When the riots begin, Millie is beside herself with worry, and in fact seems to be beside herself with worry most of the time, understandably enough. In the violent chaos she is arrested, but then finally thrown out of the squad car — in cuffs — when the cops realise they have something more important to deal with. Obie happens entirely fortuitously to be driving past as she staggers, shackled, down the street, and it is the chance for him to give some gallant help. But later she and Obie have to drive out to stop their kids from looting some store, and she gets cuffed by a cop all over again, shackled with hunky Obie to a lamppost. But Obie somehow manages to break free by ripping off Millie’s jeans, tearing them into strips to make up a rope — because denim is so easy to rip with your hands — and using it to climb up the lamppost and get himself free and then come back with his tools to rescue her (again). This weird larky scene is the single silliest and most improbable part in the film.
Meanwhile, Millie’s teen kids are involved in a tragic stabbing that has to do with sexual anxiety and sexual jealousy. It’s a strange narrative counter-current, left hanging at the end of this relatively short feature, which fails to absorb its emotional implications or how this microcosm of violence and dismay fits into the sketchily imagined bigger picture.
There are some powerful moments in Kings, certainly. The convenience store shooting of Latasha Harlins — just days after the King beating, and without any prison sentence for its perpetrator — is shockingly portrayed, and Ergüven shows the flashes of random hysteria and chaos that a riot creates. But it’s a misstep for this talented director.
- Kings is screening at the Toronto film festival and a release date is yet to be announced