Directed by: Ricky Staub
Premise: A troubled black teenager (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to live with his father (Idris Elba) who operates a horse stable in Philadelphia. The teen reunites with a childhood friend (Jharrel Jerome) who works in the drug trade.
What Works: Concrete Cowboy combines a traditional story with a contemporary sensibility. It is in some respects a western and the film is executed with an awareness of what the American West and that genre of storytelling represents, namely freedom, renewal, and masculinity. At the same time, Concrete Cowboy is an urban street film and the juxtaposition of those genres makes for an interesting mix of images and ideas. The picture is well shot and it has some beautiful images that contrast the iconography of cowboys with the urban setting. Concrete Cowboy is primarily a father-son story in which a coarse father is reunited with his estranged son and the two of them mend their relationship through a mutual affection for horses. That part of the film works especially well with the father and son coming together in ways that are credible and satisfying. Concrete Cowboy has interesting characters and a vivid sense of place. Caleb McLaughlin is cast in the lead role and he comes across as a complicated young man. There’s a lot of subtly to his performance as he weighs ethical choices. Jharrel Jerome plays the childhood friend of McLaughlin’s character and Jerome also gets a lot of depth. He’s first presented as a bad influence but the film gradually reveals that there is more to his character than that and the story of Jerome’s character transcends a typical narcotics cautionary tale. The filmmakers also use stunt casting effectively, including actual Philadelphia cowboys to play the supporting characters. These performers bring a lot of reality and texture to the movie. They also make Concrete Cowboy a portrait of a unique subculture.
What Doesn’t: Concrete Cowboy is a familiar story. A wayward youth is sent to an estranged family member and is reluctantly put to work. The father and son bond and the young man learns the virtues of old fashioned manual labor. There’s nothing wrong with that story and Concrete Cowboy tells it well but the narrative is also predictable and there are few surprises. The one unbelievable element of the film concerns a police officer played by Method Man. The actor does well in the role but the story requires the character to make some improbable choices, especially in the end, that undermine the movie’s credibility.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Concrete Cowboy contains a familiar story but it tells that story well. The movie mashes together different film genres as well as a vivid portrait of a subculture to create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Episode: #850 (May 9, 2021)