Steve James's "The Interrupters" runs long, but earns its heft. Nearly two decades after "Hoop Dreams," the director returns to Chicago's lower-class strife with a broader canvas. In this frequently alarming project, he trains his camera on the efforts of CeaseFire, an organization predominantly comprised of former Chicago criminals devoted to combating African-American street violence. In his sprawling collage of arguments and interventions (inspired by The New York Times magazine article by collaborator Alex Kotlowitz), James both documents the local frustrations and presents the interrupters as a compelling solution.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of this year's Sundance Film Festival where "The Interrupters" had its world premiere. It comes out in limited release this Friday, July 29 through the Cinema Guild. The film's running time has since been cut to 125 minutes, down from its original running time of 144 minutes.]
"Guys have been getting killed for just about anything," sighs a former drug lord. The interrupters aim to strike a pragmatic tone when attempting to mollify the rage of would-be killers from warring factions. James finds a powerful central figure in the energetic Ameena Matthews, impassioned daughter of a legendary Chicago gangster, Jeff Fort. Now a committed Muslim settled into her family life, Matthews faces down young gang members with a mixture of clear-headed arguments and fury. In the wake of a murder, she confronts—and promptly schools—a group of teen thugs for bringing an adolescent into their posse. Later, she's seen doggedly lecturing a rebellious teen. Prone to fiery monologues, Matthews is a naturally cinematic figure and James positions her diatribes as the movie's guiding engine.
The majority of "The Interrupters" consists of incessant chatter. Despite a handful of talking heads, James mostly just listens to the dialogue in a classic verité style, as the community activists analyze the "code of the streets" and their best means of changing it for the better. It's no coincidence that their process of infiltration has a methodological edge. CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist with a background fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa, views Chicago street violence as a disease preventable through tactical finesse. "Violence is learned behavior," he says. "You can judge it, but that's not what we do in science." The interrupters try to halt another outbreak as if gunfire were an influenza, but they have to catch the disease first in order to cure it. To quote a veteran of the cause, "You gotta immerse yourself in the bullshit."
Although James places more emphasis on the interrupters than the violence they seek to avoid, he finds a potent case study in the abrupt death of 14-year-old Derrion Albert, whose murder became a national event when video of it went viral in 2009. Just as James takes a detached view of the community, Albert's death displays a record of the underlying risk for the gang members subjecting themselves to it. They understand the problem from the inside out while achieving a degree of removal. "We got over 500 years of prison at this table," a team leader says. "That's a lot of fuckin' wisdom."
By letting the experts do the talking, "The Interrupters" thoroughly inhabits that wisdom. Conventional standards would imply that, at 2 hours and 42 minutes, the movie runs too long. But the lengthy middle section allows for a fascinating immersion in the details of the interrupters' efforts, and the final scenes wind down with a series of reconciliations between reformed criminals and their victims. The entire movie is one long resolution to a widespread problem and ends with the lingering feeling that the work has just begun.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Still without a distributor, "The Interrupters" should land a home in due time. It could get sizable attention on television, but a distributor committed to marketing its anti-violence message as an extension of the interrupters work might be able to catapult it to widespread acclaim and Oscar potential.
criticWIRE grade: A-