It used to be ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll,’ but the new film Freestyle has us clamoring for ‘sex, drugs, and hip-hop.’ Hip-hop, or rap, is a kind of music and singing style made popular by artists in America and is the spirit animal of this film’s narrative choices. Once the film begins, it follows one subject, exploring all varieties of chaos possible within it, but in the end, it hopes that a beautiful order emerges out of the whole thing. A kind of beautiful harmony was born out of the mess.
Directed by Maciej Bochniak and written in collaboration with Slawomir Shuty, Freestyle is very certain that the harmony it is chasing will definitely be present in the end. There is hope to find the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. The ambition is what attracts one towards freestyle. There are loads of characters, but the primary color is added by a man named Diego. Just out of rehab, he hopes to record his latest album with his friend Flour, but the trouble is, the recording studio manager wants him out as Flour stole one of the studio’s microphones in the throes of his gambling addiction.
Here begins the traumatic journey. The journey is traumatic, but not for Diego, who has a perverse libido to support him all the way. It’s traumatic for the audience, as we don’t know what is happening or how badly Diego is being punched by whoever he encounters. He is apparently in love with a girl named Miki, who is somebody else’s girlfriend. This somebody else later proves to be almost fatal for both of them. But that’s not the plot. The plot has something to do with a drug deal that Diego enters into to get the money to record his album, and he gets into every problem possible while doing so. Every step is a mistake as far as Diego is concerned, yet he never stops. His father is a notorious gangster himself, but he doesn’t go and ask for his help.
Soon, a drug deal goes bad, and Diego is hounded by both his own people and the Slovaks. The truth behind who botched up the deal for Diego creates much of the suspense in the film. There is a father-son story somewhere in the middle that gets buried under Diego’s ‘running for his life’ motif. Diego, the freestyle rapper’s career too, seems to be on the line, as he has to make a choice whether to repay the debts he owes or run away with Miki.
The plot isn’t really a ‘riddle wrapped inside an enigma,’ but boy, oh boy, is it hard to follow. The problem seems to be that there are no significant markers to remember things by. There is a bluish-green tint on every frame, and as time passes, the earlier subplots are forgotten, with absolutely no callbacks to keep them fresh in the audience’s mind. The film acts like an arrow that has left the bow, and it will not stop. The only hope is the target, but what is it? There is a scene where Diego goes to perform on stage after having been through some of the most harrowing experiences, and yet he has the energy of a coked-up gangster. The persistence of the film remained refreshing as long as it wasn’t annoying.
Recently, there have been films like Uncut Gems and Good Time that have an anxious quality about them, generated through the performances and the background score. But those films have the distance and clarity to be able to affect us viscerally with the action on screen. Freestyle seems to be smothering in nature with its fast-paced confusion. The camerawork by cinematographer Kajetan Plis is riveting, but it doesn’t understand the emotional beats of the story. It is following Diego with the sole purpose of showing what happened. There is a fear of touching the ‘how’ part of the scenario. Characters seem equal in power unless one gets beaten up or someone’s eye is gouged out.
Freestyle is like one of those nightmares where you are being chased. The frenetic quality of the film makes you intrigued, but the mental busywork necessary to keep up with the plot hinders the immersive experience. The choice had to be made, and it seems the plot was secondary. It is the taste of a life where death is hovering around, chasing and coming after you in the form of one man or another. That is what the film wants to leave you with. There are some sequences where you realize some of the people are evil-embodied, and Diego won’t survive. That should have made me care about the character, but Maciej Musialowski, who has starred in acclaimed films such as The Hater, performs Diego in an invincible manner. He is ready to stand toe to toe with everybody. Bravery isn’t the complete absence of fear. With terror all around, Diego retained a go-getter vibe, which just didn’t open up the portals to his vulnerability in a way that could make you more connected with the character. The film is not devoid of humor. There is a sequence where Diego goes to collect his recordings that had been kept by the manager, reminiscent of the sequence in Pulp Fiction where Butch goes to retrieve his father’s watch. Also, the sequences between Diego and his ‘friend,’ Flour, are funny, if not hilarious.
I am not much of a hip-hop fan, but I have heard better music. Freestyle seemed to be one of those films where the music world would collide with the gangster world. But the film was more about a series of unfortunate events that tested Diego’s survival instincts. The idea is interesting, but the execution is messy. It had the potential to be a much more powerful film. Freestyle is a well-crafted thriller that is ultimately made baffling by its ultra-brisk pacing. Watch it for its camerawork and how not to introduce character after character in the film that wasn’t even well cemented in the first half.