The L.A. riots began on April 29, 1992, and almost exactly 25 years later, roughly half a dozen documentaries and TV specials — at least one of them Oscar-worthy (John Ridley’s “Let It Fall”) — hit the mediasphere to mark the solemn anniversary, each attempting to make sense of events in its own way. Debuting at the Toronto Film Festival more than four months down the road, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s “Kings” is like the guy who arrives late to the party, drunk and disheveled, looking like he probably slept in his car. Oh, and it just might be the most daring movie of the year — although that, in and of itself, only gets you so far, especially after the epic downer that was Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” (a movie no one expected to be fun but we all had reason to hope might at least be good).
Ergüven’s title refers to two African-American Kings, Martin Luther and Rodney, unrelated and yet totally inseparable, twin fuses on the powder keg that sparked this incredible tragedy. Except that to the writer-director, who was born in Turkey and raised in France (and who has strong thoughts about how it feels to be an outsider in one’s own country), the riots aren’t so easily reducible. Judging by the film’s wildly uneven and flagrantly irreverent tone, those six days represented a moment of profound existential absurdity with a perverse comedic dimension that simply had to be acknowledged. As such, “Kings” is a tangle of conflicting moods and emotions: Within the core set of characters alone, people lose kids, kill siblings, have first-time sex, get arrested, make the news and somehow still manage to finish their homework, all in the space of the riots’ first 24 hours.
As incongruous as those experiences are, Ergüven based her screenplay on extensive research and detailed interviews with eye-witnesses, compositing the incidents she uncovered into a surreal ensemble tapestry — sort of a “Where were you during the L.A. riots?” pastiche centered on Halle Berry, Daniel Craig and a handful of underage actors. That means nearly everything she depicts happened, just probably not in quite the way she imagines it.
Devoted as Ergüven is to spotlighting a different side of the riots (whereas almost all those aforementioned docs focus on the same handful of characters, “Kings” features anecdotes so fresh, you’d think they were fictional), something rings decidedly inauthentic in the way people interact — although a mid-movie shoplifting spree proves particularly lively, retroactively lending complexity to the startling opening scene, a cut-and-dried re-creation of Latasha Harlins’ murder by a Korean convenience store clerk.
Over the past 25 years, how many movies have featured either the Rodney King beating or the L.A. riots on television screens in the background? It’s a biopic convention — a shorthand way of reminding audiences that a story took place at a certain time in America’s history — although this is the first in which the characters can switch off the TV, step out the front door and witness the craziness unfolding in real time.
In a somewhat confused way, “Kings” means to treat the burning and looting and violence as a backdrop to a more intimate family story, centered on a mother named Millie (Berry, in movie-star makeup and a million-dollar weave) with eight adopted kids under her roof and a heart too big to turn away another. Millie lives next door to Obie, a boozed-up loon played by Craig, and pretty much the only white guy who’s not a cop in the entire film. By the end, they’re a couple. If the catchphrase of the riots was King’s “Can we all get along?” then this pair answers that in an unequivocal affirmative, however bizarre their chemistry may be (and before the PC police jump to the conclusion that race has anything to do with that remark, consider that Obie would be a bad match for anyone, firing his shotgun at passersby and hurling appliances over his balcony when the police show up).
Ergüven wrote “Kings” to be her directorial debut but went off and made the Turkey-set “Mustang” first, earning an Oscar nomination for her efforts. Though it’s a huge step up in terms of scope and ambition, “Kings” would be a more effective film if it were more like “Mustang.” As it is, the two share a gift for transforming unknown child actors into well-rounded characters whose personal struggles reveal larger social issues. But in “Mustang,” she didn’t feel the need to intercut scenes from 2013’s Gezi Park protests to make her point. Here, instead of adding credibility, the archival footage feels like a cheap substitute for events and exteriors too expensive to re-create.
Somehow, the entire hectic assembly clocks in at less than 90 minutes (and that leaves room for Millie to have an extended erotic dream, and for a protracted and nearly incoherent death scene involving one of her kids). Despite a relatively mellow score by Nick Cave (piano and vibes) and Warren Ellis (everything else), “Kings” makes for a dizzying, Cuisinart-style collage, where everything is pitched at the same level, whether it’s a white cop waving a loaded weapon at the agitated locals or Millie overreacting to a cockroach in her kitchen. (It should be said that Berry has given some of the best and worst performances of the past quarter-century, but this is perhaps the only one that swings to both extremes in the same movie.)
As portraits of Los Angeles go, it’s the polar opposite of P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia,” whose climactic scene, in which frogs rain from the clear blue sky, is more believable than anything that happens here, even though “Kings” is nearly all true. That’s because “Magnolia” left room to breathe, ebbing and flowing and gradually building to a series of much-needed catharses, so that by the end, audiences felt as if they knew the characters. Here, it’s more of an unmediated jumble.
Ergüven isn’t out to rewrite history, though she’s determined to highlight the darkly comedic aspects of what went down amid the turmoil, including priceless details — a mom yanking a neighborhood kid away from the cops mid-arrest, or police too overwhelmed to handle the situation leaving a pair of troublemakers handcuffed to a streetlight — without presenting a clear overarching narrative. If the story begins more than a year before, with Latasha Harlins’ death, and if the riots lasted six days, why does the movie end where it does? When dealing with such an absurd situation, does anything make sense?