Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station

  • An emotionally gripping docudrama, Fruitvale Station is one of 2013’s best films.
  • Writer/Director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is anchored by sound design. Coogler and his audio department make several clever choices, the most obvious of which is employing silence to heighten tension in the picture’s most important moments. But silence is not the sound’s best quality; the best is the way Oakland’s BART trains often serve as ambient noise.
  • Largely owing to the audio, Fruitvale Station sets and maintains a foreboding tone.
  • Coogler’s other directorial and authorial decisions do the same. Consider the way he consistently reminds us of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) temper and impulsiveness; the fact that Oscar still gives drugs to a buyer after he resolves to go straight; or the camera that lingers on Oscar’s loved ones as they struggle with his flaws. All of Fruitvale Station’s elements combine to ensure we remember the movie’s inevitable resolution, even as we’re laughing at the most light-hearted moments.
  • In other words, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is an impressive artistic achievement. He is a filmmaker to watch.
  • He is also a terrific screenwriter. Coogler develops his principle characters well, and makes secondary players feel genuine.
  • Even better, he refuses to villainize or herofy. On one hand, Officer Caruso (a scene-stealingly good Kevin Durand) initially seems a racist monster but shifts to compassionate life saver the moment events go horribly wrong. Even Officer Ingram (Chad Michael Murray) seems befuddled and racked with guilt immediately after his terrible mistake.
  • On the other hand, Oscar is tender, sweet, and charismatic, but he is also self-destructive, quick to anger, and violent. He wants to improve his life, but there is no guarantee that he will succeed.
  • All of which is to say Coogler’s script refuses to give into archetype or cliche.
  • Fruitvale Station’s actors match their director’s skill. Michael B. Jordan is dynamic as Oscar, delivering one of many award-worthy lead performances in 2013. His last dialogue is understated and heart-wrenching.
  • Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda, with such steady certainty that she deserves her second Academy Award.
  • Melonie Diaz (Sophina) is heart-breakingly good, as well, earning award recognition whether or not she receives it.
  • In fact, Fruitvale Station’s ensemble rivals American Hustle’s in performance brilliance.
  • The movie’s flaws are minor. It invents a handful of scenes (Oscar caring for a wounded dog amongst them) and omits some of the uncertainty in Officer Ingram’s behavior.
  • Additionally, about midway through, it choppily cuts to a flashback of Oscar’s time in prison.
  • Yet, neither of these minor missteps limit the film’s thematic or narrative power. This movie highlights the racially-charged injustice that plagues the US legal system, and it leaves us longing for change.
  • Final Grade: A

31 thoughts on “Fruitvale Station

  1. Terrific review James, all these highlights nudge me a tad bit closer to seeing it, though I’m sure it’s going to be a tough watch. By the sounds of it, the quality of Coogler’s vision and the performances ensure this will be the case. Maybe I will get to it one afternoon. . .although I think it’s just going to leave me upset.

    • It will leave you upset. No question. It will also make you laugh a little and keep you entertained before it does so. It really is a powerful flick.

      Since you’re every bit as big a cinephile as me, I’d say you shouldn’t miss this one.

  2. Great to hear you enjoyed this one buddy. I thought it was marvellous. Minor flaws like you say, but overall a very solid movie and very unfortunate not to be included in the oscars.

    • Yeah. The sound design, acting, screenplay … all are Oscar worthy. At least one nomination would have been deserved.

      And I don’t think the year has seen a single supporting female better than Octavia Spencer.

  3. I was incredibly bored with this whole movie and the cheap maneuver to elicit sympathy and forced symbolism with the dog scene was just horrendous. But I did like the acting, especially Olivia Spencer.

    • Obviously we had very different experiences with this one.

      I will say I do not think this tries to force sympathy. I acknowledge that you are not the only viewer to levy the critique, but I personally think it unfair.

      I think Coogler goes out of his way to show Oscar being his own worst enemy. When his boss will not give back his job, Oscar threatens him, which, obviously, is not smart behavior. When his mom tells him she can’t visit the prison anymore, he lashes out, saying she never loved him. Even in the last scene, as badly as the police behave, Oscar behaves badly, too, probably as badly as he possibly could have. How different might that arrest have been if Oscar had been less argumentative, less accusatory, less temperamental, more cooperative?

      As to the dog scene. It is my least favorite in the film, but it doesn’t ruin the experience for me. While there is symbolism in it, I think the scene’s primary utility is in defining character. We have just seen Oscar violently threaten his former boss, which shows us one thing about him. The dog is meant to show us the other side; Oscar could also be very empathetic and gentle.

      • I didn’t mean that the whole film tries to force the sympathy but the dog scene – I mean it’s insulting to the viewer – give people benefit of the doubt and let them reach conclusions without cheap analogies and symbolism – and I hate scenes like that, after this happened I pretty much lost interest in the movie.

      • Fair enough. (And sorry for misunderstanding.)

        Like I said, that scene bothers me less than it does you, but it is definitely the weakest part of the picture.

  4. Fantastic film, and a really great review of it. I agree that some scenes like the dog may have been added simply to make it more emotional, but at the end of the day, it is a good move. Makes you feel more, and this is needed in helping us understand the major flaws in the legal system. It disgusts me to this day that the officer is living life right now, outside of jail. His excuse of reaching for his taser, but accidentally grabbed the gun, is ridiculous.

    • Thank you.

      And that certainly doesn’t pass the sniff test, does it? (Though there is more uncertainty than Coogler presents here. Apparently, one of the witnesses says he heard the officer say, ‘Step back. I’m going to tase him,’ prior to shooting. I don’t know which witness says as much, but I saw one article reporting it as one of Oscar’s friends.)

      Even if it is true, though, Oscar’s death is horrifying. That the US’s legal system gives so many citizens/residents such powerful reason to distrust it and thereby creates these sorts of confrontations and tragedies …. well … it doesn’t flatter our culture.

      • I believe that I may have read something like that as well. Very weird, and no way of us actually knowing I guess. It just seems impossible that a trainer police officer can be that stupid. A gun and a taser feel very different in a persons hand, or belt.

        I do not think he just shot him strictly out of racism. It was likely a state of fear due to not knowing if Oscar was armed. Regardless, his punishment is way too light, and the killing was unjustified.

    • That scene is certainly the worst of the movie, but I don’t hate it as much as some others, you included. I think it works well enough to show character that its manipulation doesn’t bother me.

      • OMG I sobbed my eyes out, so powerful!

        No not yet, I am so behind right now with work, I actually have seen like 10 movies in the past 2 weeks. I have to ask you how do you ensure that you blog consistently? Or do you have a writing schedule?

      • No schedule for me. (Which is why I advertise reviews so inconsistently.) I read others’ posts mostly from my phone and try I write my own reviews within a couple days of seeing a movie.

        Even still it is definitely hard. Blogging takes much more time than I ever expected.

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