Concrete Cowboy review: Netflix's father-son story lovingly showcases a unique community of horse riders
Concrete Cowboy's most impressive moments transcend the father-son story, when the kinship of the horse-riding community comes to the fore
There is a certain goodness deep at the heart of the new Netflix film Concrete Cowboy; it is reflective, perhaps, of the community that breathes life into the world of the film. A tight-knit band of Black horse riders – gender no bar – in the middle of urban Philadelphia. On the surface, it might all seem like cinematic liberty and/or an excuse to put Idris Elba on a horse. First-time director Ricky Staub’s film, however, doesn’t take much time to dispel any such notions.
The Fletcher Street riders are a real community in Philadelphia, one that provides a tiny urban haven to those who might otherwise have been sucked into the vicious whirlpool of systemic oppression that often rips the fabric of American society to shreds. A few of these real riders feature as prominent characters in Concrete Cowboy, and you might be able tell them apart instantly. Not because they stick out as non-actors amidst professionals – they don’t. Instead, it is because around them, the film truly takes on a life of its own.
Teenaged Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is expelled from his school in Detroit, so his angered mother dumps him off at his estranged father’s house in Philly. Now, out of the blue, Cole finds himself sharing living space with a horse, under the roof of a man he has absolutely no connection with. He finds a measure of solace when he also catches up with his cousin and childhood buddy Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a youngster who has already taken to a dangerous life on the street.
The father-son story at the heart of the film is a simple one, with predictable beats. Stuck in a whole new environment, Cole is faced with the choice of either hitting the streets with Smush, or turning to his dad and the community he belongs to, which is hard for the youngster to deal with because the man has never been a father to him in the first place.
The relationship between Cole and his father Harp is deeply fractured, and it leads to one unforgettable little scene that marks the start of the healing process – after a heated verbal altercation, his dad ends up telling Cole the story behind his name.
But really, the film’s most impressive moments transcend the father-son story, when the kinship of the community comes to the fore. You see it when Cole learns the smart way to shovel literal horseshit. You can almost feel it when the clan gets together by a fire to swap stories. The film is really made to bring into the universe’s consciousness, a tribe of people who’ve fought long and hard to carve out and create a little bubble for themselves in a society that can otherwise be hostile to them.
It helps the cause of Concrete Cowboy immensely, that horses are so inherently cinematic. They aren’t just handsome to look at, but they also exude a wild, intimate kind of freedom that could have been called ‘unbridled’, if that wouldn’t have been so ironic. But no, despite the freedom that horses lose when they are domesticated by us humans, they don’t lose that striking aura of aristocratic abandon.
When Cole is in the process forging his own bond with a horse – a particularly aggressive one named Boo – and when he discovers that Boo doesn’t mind him as much as seems to mind other humans, you just know what impact this might have on the young boy. When Cole and Boo are face to face, right up against each other, it manifests a whole new kind of love.
It isn’t just the horses that contribute to the film’s visual allure, though. From warm, sunny frames, to remarkable wide ones where the characters occupy just a small space in an exquisite larger composition, to striking silhouettes and shadows that reveal more than they hide; the film is a sublime assembly of images that only help enhance its emotional core. (Not to mention a few sharply cut action/chase sequences, with and without horses.)
Young Caleb McLaughlin turns in a simmering performance as young Cole who’s on the edge, while the electric Jharrel Jerome (breakout star of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series When They See Us) turns Smush into an antihero to root for. Idris Elba is content taking a bit of a back seat in the film, which ends up making nearly every one of his scenes quite precious. (Not to mention the wonderful Lorraine Toussaint’s cameo as Nessie, a force of nature within the clan of riders.)
Still, the most memorable appearances in the film are by the real-life riders of Fletcher Street. Some come in to deliver a mere look or a fleeting line, while some others have more significant roles to play, with respect to Cole and his story. But every one of them is worth their screen-time in gold. Remember when Cole has to shovel horseshit? Wait till you meet the guy who teaches him how.
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