An archetypal story of inner-city thug life gets a refreshingly atypical spin in “Cracks in Concrete,” sophomore helmer Umut Dag’s propulsive drama of a troubled teen negotiating the mean streets of Vienna. Though it traffics in myriad cliches concerning paroled felons trying to go straight and wayward urban youths deluded by dreams of gangsta-rap stardom, what “Cracks” lacks in originality it more than makes up for in authentically gritty atmosphere and powerhouse performances. Graced by a straightforward, easily accessible narrative and building to a shattering emotional climax, the pic should connect strongly with a broad spectrum of fest audiences and arthouse-goers.
Dag (“Kuma”) drops the viewer quite literally into the thick of things, opening the film with a startling scene in which thirtysomething parolee Ertan (Murathan Muslu) is repeatedly slapped and pummeled by a middle-aged white woman (“Paradise: Love” star Margarete Tiesel) who confronts him in the street. Only later do we learn that this is Ertan’s failed attempt to reconcile with the mother of the young man he killed a decade earlier. Back then, Ertan was a much-feared man in this insular world of small-time drug pushers and scam artists, mostly emigres of Central and Eastern European extraction. Now he’s trying to keep his head down and his temper quelled, though not everyone is convinced that Ertan has turned over a new leaf: His older brother refuses to speak to him, and a restraining order prohibits him (somewhat conveniently, where the movie’s narrative is concerned) from contacting his ex-girlfriend.
Dag and co-writer Petra Ladinigg parallel Ertan’s return with scenes from the life of 15-year-old Mikail (Alechan Tagaev), a high-school dropout who runs drugs for local boss Yilmaz (Mehmet Ali Salman) and spends most of his time recording rap songs for the demo CD he imagines will serve as his ticket to a better life. That these two characters are in many ways doppelgangers is obvious from the start — one young and still relatively innocent, the other worn down by a lifetime of violence and bad decisions. But almost as quickly, it becomes clear that there are deeper ties binding Mikail and Ertan, especially when the latter goes out of his way to land a job on the construction crew doing repairs at the community center where Mikail lays down beats in a makeshift recording studio. Only the densest of viewers won’t immediately pick up on what’s going on, but in the spirit of classical tragedy, the movie insists on keeping the characters themselves in the dark about this key revelation until late in the third act — a device that would have worked better if Mikail had seemed at least the slightest bit curious about the sudden attention he starts receiving from this mysterious stranger.
Indeed, “Cracks in Concrete” tends to be at its best when it sets aside the machinations of its plot and simply immerses us in its vividly rendered social milieu, a world away from the chilly manicured hedgerows of the desiccated Viennese bourgeoisie — the favored setting for so many films of the past decade’s Austrian filmmaking renaissance. Here, among these gray housing blocks and strobe-lit nightclubs pulsing to an EDM beat, the people are anything but glacial and tamped-down, routinely exploding in chest-beating displays of macho aggression, all trying to increase their stock of that most valuable street commodity: respect.
If we’ve been here before, in countless movies ranging from “Mean Streets” to “Boyz n the Hood,” Dag infuses things with his own particular intensity. “Cracks” seems to exist in a state of perpetual motion, with the characters forever hustling to and from and d.p. Georg Geutebruck’s exceptionally agile, fluid handheld camera nimbly keeping up with them. Dag and Ladinigg have a habit of falling back on time-worn plot devices right when they’re on a roll, but just as often a scene darts off in a smart, unexpected direction, as when Mikail plays his demo CD for his rapper idol (played by real-life German-Kurdish rapper Azad), only to get a Llewyn Davis-style wake up call. And especially in the final third, as Mikail’s increasing debt to Yilmaz threatens to trap him in the ghetto like a rat in a maze, the movie reaches a feverish, claustrophobic pitch.
Whatever the scene, the actors bring the characters to life with fantastic conviction. From the moment Ertan first appears, Muslu (who played a supporting role in Dag’s “Kuma” and has assorted TV credits) inhabits the role with a great actor’s attention to the smallest details of behavior and movement. He has the downcast gaze and weary posture of a broken man, but eyes that occasionally flicker with the hair-trigger temper of the monster he used to be — and could, he fears, become again. In his screen debut, non-pro Tagaev can’t match his co-star’s precision technique, but he’s very good at showing the decent, loving boy beneath the Teflon surface needed to survive on the streets.