Review by Sean Boelman
One wouldn’t normally expect a film about a disillusioned rapper to be among the movies screening at the Festival de Cannes (even in the ACID sidebar), but there’s a lot more to Diego Ongaro’s Down with the King than that. Thanks to strong performances and surprisingly restrained writing, this is a very compelling watch.
The film follows a famous rapper who, tired of the spotlight, decides to take refuge in a small town with the goal of becoming a farmer. On paper, this sounds like it should be a fish-out-of-water comedy, but it’s far from it. This is a meditative and somewhat somber character study, and it’s all the better for it.
Ultimately, the overall arc of the movie is somewhat predictable, if only because there are a lot of films with similar plots that end in a similar place. However, it is the approach that Ongaro and co-writer Xabi Molia takes that allows it to stand out as something distinctive. It’s a movie that is less about the destination and more about the spiritual journey that the character takes to get there.
The things that the film has to say about fame aren’t anything particularly new, as the movie says many of the same things about how the attention can tend to be toxic. However, there is another level in the film about racism in small-town America, and this is arguably the more interesting aspect of the story.
One of the highlights of the movie is how complex its character development is. The first act of the film introduces us to all of these people, who seem somewhat conventional and archetypal at first glance but show their deeper layers over the course of the movie. This is particularly the case with the protagonist, who seems to have been written with the intention of busting stereotypes.
The lead performance from Freddie Gibbs is absolutely exceptional, especially given the fact that this is his first feature-length performance. Of course, there is probably an element of relatability and honesty to the character given his work as a rapper. The supporting cast is also strong, but largely functions to accent Gibbs’s performance.
Ongaro’s directorial style is very subtle but does a lot to immerse us in this portion of small-town America. There are a few scenes that are hard to watch because of the way in which it depicts certain (very real) aspects of farming life, like the butchering of animals for meat, but other parts effectively show the beauty of the landscapes.
Down with the King is an effective film, and even though the story does have a few conventional aspects, the patient approach serves it well. A strong combination of writing, directing, and acting allow this to be an affecting drama.
Down with the King screened at the Cannes Film Festival, which ran from July 7-17.