Concrete Cowboy Review: Ghetto Wrangling

Apr 6, 2021
Concrete Cowboy movie poster

Even before the pandemic forced the closure of cinemas across the globe, the major streaming services had begun to move heavily into the mid-budget adult drama arena, financing films that would perhaps no longer be viable in multiplexes where there is limited space between blockbusting superhero epics and acclaimed indie darlings. There's always going to be suspicion over any multinational company that has dominance in a marketplace, but Netflix have utilised their countless millions and global reach to produce a variety of films that simply wouldn't exist without their support (and money). The major studios wouldn't bankroll the likes of The Irishman or Mank these days as they'd generally see a limited return on their investment, whereas Netflix use different metrics for success and having the latest movie from Scorsese or Fincher on their roster adds to their level of prestige. Beasts Of No Nation was Netflix's first foray into original movies back in 2015, and since then they've produced a wealth of films covering all manner of genres, working with established legends as well as promising newcomers, proving that they can cut it with the main players. The star of Beasts Of No Nation, Idris Elba, returns for Netflix's latest original, Concrete Cowboy (based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri), although there's very little similarity between the two beyond his casting (and Concrete Cowboy is certainly a lot less harrowing!).

Although he gets top billing, Elba's is more of a supporting role with Caleb McLaughlin taking the spotlight, which is initially jarring when you realise he's one of the kids from Stranger Things (and clearly not a kid any more at that). McLaughlin's turn as Cole is understated but sensitive, the wayward son sent by his mother to live with his estranged father after one too many incidents at school. Elba's Harp belongs to a group of Black urban cowboys in Philadelphia, one of a handful of such groups across the States, where tradition and a more ordered style of living supersedes the temptations the urban environment might generally offer.

It's a fairly standard father/son dynamic - initial resistance gradually leading to understanding - but it's conveyed through strong, empathetic performances in a setting that feels unique and unexplored by mainstream culture. The film possesses a gentleness, due in part to the poise of the cast but also a sense of safety in a tight knit community, and danger only rears its head when Cole strays outside of that community with young hustler Smush (an excellent Jharrel Jerome, recent recipient of an Emmy Award for his outstanding turn in miniseries When They See Us), the supposedly 'easier' route towards making a living fraught with jeopardy and the risk of catching a bullet.

Concrete Cowboy still

There's an avoidance of melodramatic moralising in favour of a more measured approach, where experience and understanding are the key pointers towards the right path; lessons have to be learnt on their own terms before the right decisions can be made. The direction is measured, the script subtly insightful, and the photography frequently ravishing, particularly the scenes shot at dusk, the orange hues reflecting the warmth of the community. The sequences with the horses capture their elegance and the connection they have between their owners, their (mostly) calm presence providing an anchor for some who may have otherwise been lost. 

Elba remains a powerful force on screen and even when he's in a more quietly spoken role he can still dominate a scene through his physicality and confidence. The supporting cast are all strong, from Method Man's conflicted sheriff to a few genuine members of the actual Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club who lend a real authenticity to the ensemble. It's McLaughlin whose emotional journey resonates most though, whether he's alone on screen or playing off Elba with a mix of anger, regret and tenderness - there's a depth and maturity on display that shows a potential that can continue to be tapped long after Stranger Things is distant memory.

Concrete Cowboy lightly absorbs and reflects some familiar Western tropes, but it feels more like a 'rites of passage' - the fork in the road moment that will determine where your life will take you next, for good or ill. It's affecting and heartfelt, contains moments where the threat of violence hangs heavily, but ultimately leans towards the more uplifting end of the spectrum and is a fine of example of the kind of emotive, low stakes storytelling that would perhaps no longer find a viable outlet without the support and clout of a streamer like Netflix.

CONCRETE COWBOY (2021)
Cast: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Clifford 'Method Man' Smith
Director: Ricky Staub
Screenplay: Ricky Staub & Dan Walser (based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri)
111 minutes

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