Austin Film Festival Review: Down With the King
Freddie Gibbs finds a new flow as a rapper in the country
By Richard Whittaker,
9:30PM, Sat. Oct. 23, 2021
With its logline of "rapper goes to live with farmers," if Down With the King had been pitched to a major studio, it would have ended up a goofy comedy starring Kevin Hart. Instead, writer/director Diego Ongaro and MC Freddie Gibbs craft a drama that is both observational and enigmatic.
The pitch is the same, but rather than some hackneyed scene about Mercury Maxwell (Gibbs) breaking down in some podunk town, or some whackiness with his entourage and the locals, Down with the King begins with real farm life. Maxwell on a small farm in Massachusetts, dressed completely inappropriately for the setting, in that kind of early morning awe that you only get when you're out in the countryside, and the sun is just right, and the mist is perfect. Then he's helping farmer Bob (actual farmer Bob Tarasuk, from Ongaro's 2010 Sundance breakout-turned-2015 feature Bob and the Trees) butcher and dress a pig in the barn. And he's into it.
It's hard not to detect a trace of bitter irony in the title, taken from Run-D.M.C.'s 1993 comeback album on which they dumped the by-then passé bucket hats and gold chains for harder beats and rhymes that kept them in the conversation with the new generation of megasellers like Snoop and Tupac. Gibbs and, by inference, Maxwell are the heirs of that inheritance, and it's clear neither is too happy with where that's left them. Down With the King the album was a response to a rap scene that was leaving the originators behind: Down With the King the film is about a musician abdicating his throne, an existential crisis laid out with delicacy and insight.
There's an improvised feel, much of it due to the fact that neither Gibbs nor Tarasuk are seasoned actors. Instead, they freely inhabit their characters. Gibbs in particular fills the seemingly-indomitable Maxwell with doubt and self-doubt. He gives the story particular insight into the rap game (a pointed conversation about the genre's violent baggage is especially loaded), but never lets the narrative fall into the easy traps of the "musician moves to the country, falls in love, finds new life in nature" predictable path.
Those beats are there but Down With the King plays against them, especially in Maxwell's burgeoning relationship with shop worker Michaele (Jamie Neumann, The Deuce, Lovecraft Country). It's a plot we've seen hundreds of times (it's one wrecked fence from being Doc Hollywood) but there's an edge of desperation, of Maxwell trying to break out of the life he no longer wants but realizing that he can't just put on a new rural existence like a fresh pair of sneakers. It's not a learning curve about becoming a son of the soil, but about finding himself, and much of that comes from working out what he isn't. That leads to desperation, and that's what Gibbs emotes to subtly and powerfully. It's a portrait of confusion, Maxwell's nature obscured from himself as much as the woodlands (elegantly captured by cinematographer Daniel Vecchi one) are hidden by mists.
In its introspective honesty, Down With the King finds kinship with two other recent portraits of lost male identity: Sound of Metal and Moghul Mowgli, both starring Riz Ahmed. But it's not in the music industry backdrop they all share: rather, it's in that shared sympathetically-depicted search for a sense of self after all the old metrics become meaningless.
Down With the King
North American Premiere
Austin Film Festival, Oct. 21-28. Find all our news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.