Making a film funny and a thriller at the same time require a great sense of balance on the creativity tightrope. Director Carey Williams has that balance. His film Emergency was a delightful surprise on multiple levels. I expected a somewhat heavy-handed “hate the cops” film when I read the description, but Emergency avoids falling into that polemical trap.
The film made its Texas premiere at the SXSW Conference which returned this year to live presentations after two years of virtual-only events. A short version of Williams’ film had screened at the last live SXSW in 2019. He used the last two years to create the feature version.
Can a film be funny and a thriller? Emergency makes this happen. The comedic elements start right at the beginning with two college guys discussing girls and planning the ultimate night of spring break parties. They even have a chart on the wall diagramming which parties they will attend in what order.
Plenty of college kid craziness ensues to provide laughs.
Also, the relationship between the two guys, Sean, played by RJ Cyler (I’m Dying Up Here), and Kunie, played by Donald Elise Watkins (The Underground Railroad), delivers the “buddy banter” that makes for so many laughs. They also have a third roommate, Carlos, played by Sebastian Chacon (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels). Carlos didn’t party with them because he preferred getting stoned and playing video games. I couldn’t help thinking, “This is Cheech’s grandson.”
When the emergency happens, the film begins its transformation to thriller. Still, it made me think of Weekend at Bernie’s.
The emergency referenced in the title begins when Sean and Kunie return home after partying.
Carlos forgot to lock the door and with headphones on was oblivious to the noise. As Sean and Kunie enter, they find a young women passed out on the floor. Call 911? Of course. No, wait. The passed-out, perhaps dying young woman is white. Sean and Kunie, Black, and Carlos, Hispanic, might be suspects. The possibility that the police will arrest them “because we are Black” causes a crisis.
They put the girl in their van and an odyssey full of thrills begins. By the end of the film, you will have spent considerable time on the edge of your seat. It really gets scary-serious.
We Are Black
Part of the quality of the film develops because it is not a polemic. Kunie argues that no matter what they do, the police will bust them. Sean takes a contrary position. Their back-and-forth presents alternative views of the world. Their disagreements cause the emergency, and, of course, the car chases, to go on much longer than necessary.
Carlos tries to help, but accidentally gives the young woman, who temporarily regains consciousness, more drugs.
During the audience Q&A after the film, RJ Cyler responded to a question about how he approached the role. He said, “I used my relationship with my own brothers to relate to the characters.” Sebastian Chacon agreed that the film was definitely about relationships.
Director Williams said, “Both RJ and Donald were thinking about that, and KD wrote a really great script with a focus on relationships. A lot of the time I just got out of the way and let them do it.”
Screenwriter KD Davila commented that she drew on her Hispanic background and the anxiety certain interactions create. She explained, “We didn’t want it to be just a movie where someone might die, we wanted it to be cathartic for people who have experienced that anxiety.”
Emergency opens in limited theatrical release on May 20 and streams on Amazon Prime on May 27.