America on the brink of a second civil war is a timely concept that only got timelier last November, and gritty action-thriller “Bushwick” exploits that frightening “what if” scenario from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Even if the low-budget execution is uneven at times, there’s enough snap to the filmmaking, and enough raw power in the premise, to make for solid B-movie excitement. A surprisingly potent performance from professional wrestler (and “Guardians of the Galaxy” co-star) Dave Bautista should add to the appeal for a young male audience.
While Bautista will surely be central to any marketing campaign, the focus of the movie is grad student Lucy (Brittany Snow), who becomes our avatar into a disconcerting alternate universe in which the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick is under military invasion. After witnessing her boyfriend’s brutal death just outside an abandoned subway station, Lucy makes her way through streets littered with bodies and a mysterious military force.
A few citizens are fighting back against these initially unidentified assailants, while others take the opportunity to loot. But the majority wind up dead. Fortunately for Lucy — a civil engineering major with little to no practical survival skills — she happens upon ex-Marine Stupe (Bautista), who lives in a basement shelter and claims to be on his way to Hoboken, New Jersey, to reunite with his wife and child.
Lucy begs him to help her get the five blocks to her grandmother’s apartment, and although Stupe is initially reluctant, the pair are bonded when she helps cauterize a wound he gets from a piece of shattered glass. It’s not until they meet up with Lucy’s feisty pothead sister Belinda (Angelic Zambrana), and intercept one of the masked soldiers (Alex Breaux) that they and the audience uncover what’s really going on.
Details that are best kept under wraps for maximum impact will surely emerge as part of the film’s marketing strategy, particularly since the high concept has become all the more eerily credible, and irresistibly provocative, in the current political climate. Inspired by (sensationalized) reports that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was advocating the state secede from the Union after the election of President Obama, the invading military presence in “Bushwick” turns out to be a consortium of soldiers from multiple Southern states looking to force the government’s hand in ratifying a multi-state secession. They’re focused on areas like Bushwick because the “ethno-diversity” there is believed to make it for easy targets to occupy.
That’s one of several ways the film, scripted by Nick Damici (“Cold In July”) and sound designer Graham Reznick, and directed by the “Cooties” team of Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, casually dips into race relations and divisions in American ideologies without ever becoming a full-on message movie. With fear of an authoritarian government and threats to secede surfacing on both sides of the political aisle, the nightmarish vision “Bushwick” presents could theoretically hold bipartisan allure. But there’s no question who the villains are here, and the film remains explicitly against both the idea of secession and the ugliness of war.
Filmed by d.p. Lyle Vincent in a series of single takes, and cut together by Joe Hobeck to appear like a nearly unbroken shot (a couple of dissolves shatter the illusion, and numerous other cuts are hidden in plain sight, especially as characters travel through doorways and up and down stairs), Murnion and Milott treat the action as something between the harrowing footage of war correspondents and the visceral thrills of a violent video game.
But even when Bautista breaks out a cathartic body slam, “Bushwick” aims for something a bit more mournful and anxiety-provoking in its depiction of an urban neighborhood-turned-battlefield. The directors’ ambition slightly outstrips their budget constraints, most problematically when the action stops cold for clunky dialogue exchanges to kill time. But, in general, they manage to convey a credible sense of chaos both on and off the streets.
The key becomes keeping the camera contained to Lucy and Stupe’s immediate field of vision and letting the sound design do a lot of the heavy lifting with an omnipresent assault of helicopters, tanks, and gunfire largely off-screen. A propulsive, downright badass score from indie hip-hop stalwart Aesop Rock sets the tone from the start and never lets up.
Even though Snow gets a flashy transformation as Lucy connects with her inner warrior, it’s Bautista who walks away with the film. A character of immense physicality and few words, Stupe shocks Lucy and the audience simultaneously with the emotional third act reveal of his anguished backstory. It’s the mark of a serious action star in the making that Bautista is equally persuasive breaking an enemy’s arm and tugging the viewer’s heart.