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Bushwick review: the debate over punching Nazis takes on extra weight in this timely American apocalyptic thriller

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When Texas invades Brooklyn, themes of race, violence, and defense against fascism emerge in a North-vs.-South war

Bushwick Sundance Film Festival

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. An earlier version of this review originally in January 2017, in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival. It is being republished to coincide with the film’s theatrical rollout.

Bushwick opens on a scene that’s supposed to convey millennial Brooklynite normalcy: a college student and her boyfriend get off the L train, bantering about introducing him to her family, and complaining about the subway. The station is strangely empty. Then a man on fire runs down the stairs, and the real movie begins.

Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, Bushwick is one part social commentary, three parts hard-driving urban-warfare film. It’s like a New Yorker’s version of Red Dawn, but with a far more conflicted relationship with violence, and a close focus on two characters: the ingenue Lucy (Pitch Perfect’s Brittany Snow), and a taciturn former Marine named Stupe, played by Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista.

What’s the genre?

Gritty, apocalyptic escape-from-New-York scenario.

What’s it about?

Civil-engineering graduate student Lucy goes home to visit her grandmother in Bushwick, and finds the Brooklyn neighborhood overrun by masked soldiers systematically killing everyone in sight. After a close encounter with a pair of looters, she teams up with Stupe, a gruff janitor whose battlefield medical skills, collection of firearms, and references to military tactics clearly indicate that he’s much more dangerous than he appears.

As the pair look for Lucy’s family, they discover that the soldiers are actually an impromptu army sent by a coalition of Southern states, attempting to seize Bushwick as part of a Texas secessionist movement. If Stupe and Lucy can cross five blocks, there might be a way out — but that’s harder than it sounds.

Okay, what’s it really about?

In a post-film Q&A session at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Milott and Murnion said they were inspired by an offhand comment about secession from former Texas governor Rick Perry. Bushwick imagines a literal culture war, but it seems more specifically interested in inverting the right-wing fantasy of guerrilla resistance. Instead of Americans banding together to rise up against a foreign invader, Bushwick residents must unite to defeat an enemy who thinks principles like racial tolerance make their city weak. And instead of seeing warfare as purposeful and cleansing, Stupe — a disillusioned veteran built like a mountain — feels as though he’s being drawn back into something inherently repellant.

Bushwick

Is it good?

Bushwick suffers from an aimless start, stretching out the revelation of the invaders’ identity (referenced in the film’s synopsis, so it’s not exactly a secret) until well into the film. In spite of the immediate, nearly nonstop action, nothing Stupe and Lucy do in the first act can possibly be as interesting as figuring out, as Lucy puts it, “Who the fuck invades Bushwick?”

Once the film answers this question, it settles into a deceptively cathartic cosmopolitan revenge fantasy. The secessionists deride New York City gun laws and spout white-nationalist rhetoric, so they’re surprised when they encounter not only armed resistance, but a neighborhood willing to temporarily put aside its internal conflicts and unite to fight.

In the real world, Bushwick is known as a budding hipster enclave, and racialized tension over gentrification runs unevenly through the film. Bushwick goes out of its way to refute the neighborhood’s stereotype, though, as well as the idea that city-dwellers are godless coastal elites, not “real Americans.” Catholicism comes up frequently, and although it’s subtler, so does the reminder that New York is where September 11th — the terrorist attack that has helped define modern patriotism — actually happened.

Things quickly get more complicated, though — and the film suggests that violence is a betrayal of Lucy and Stupe’s ideals, not a defense of them. It’s apropos that Bushwick premiered during the furor over white supremacist Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on camera, and is being released during a renewed furor over white-supremacist rallies. That’s because it touches on one of the core questions in that debate: how useful is it to violently resist an enemy whose group is probably better at violence than you are, because they fetishize it, whereas you will only fight when pressed?

Bushwick undercuts that message with its many competent, satisfyingly over-the-top action sequences. After the Sundance screening, Milott and Murnion argued that the film is ultimately anti-violence and anti-gun. “If you fight back and you use guns, people are going to pay the consequences of that,” said Murnion. But guns are the lifeblood of Bushwick. Characters’ power dynamics shift based on who has one and who doesn’t, and the movie is only enjoyable because people like Lucy do fight back. The fact that it may turn out poorly doesn’t change that, any more than the tragic endings of vintage exploitation films made the sex and drugs in them less attractive.

In the 1970s, director Francois Truffaut famously claimed that every film about war ends up being pro-war, because onscreen violence is inherently thrilling. Bushwick may not be a traditional war movie — but it’s not the kind of thing you walk away from with a commitment to non-violent resistance, either.

How should it be rated?

Probably R for some extremely graphic battlefield medical treatment and a sky-high body count.

How can I actually watch it?

The film opens in limited theatrical release on August 25th, and will be on DVD/Blu-ray on October 24.