2018 | US/Kosovo/Albania | Directed by Matthew A. Brown
Logline: An ex-pat Albanian has done time and is now back on the streets of NYC and immediately becomes entangled in the throes of obsessive revenge, whilst trying to court a local woman.
Leon (John Rezaj) is fresh out of prison, back into the fold of his Albanian community in The Bronx. He’s nearly fifty and yet feels like a caged animal half his age. Years of pent up frustration are oozing through his pores. Cognac and cocaine provide only temporary relief. But his brotherhood is strong, and there is the presence of Lisa (Ashley C. Williams), who has caught his eye. He wants to impress her, but his social skills leave a lot to be desired. He only really understands the rules of honour and the rituals of vengeance.
Leon and his buddy Koja (Nik Nucallaj) run into the informant who was responsible for Leon being put away. Immediately Leon is on the attack, but he curbs his anger, knowing there is a time and place for release, and it will come. Instead he bides his time, fuelling his rage, a pistol under his tank top, his eyes watering with contempt. Soon the thunder will crack.
Brown’s debut feature, Julia, was a dark and intense tale of revenge, and Albanian Gangster is similar territory, but an altogether different kind of beast, especially in its style. Whereas Julia had a shadowy lushness that gave it a distinct Euro vibe, even though it was also set in New York, with Albanian Gangster Brown has allowed the grimy Eastside locations to really sing. Combined with a mostly non-professional cast, the movie has a strong sense of realism.
I’m reminded of Nicolas Winding Refn’s debut film, Pusher, which in turn was inspired by Scorsese’s Mean Streets. There’s the heat-seeking camerawork, the naturalistic performances, and Brown’s cinema verité technique. Indeed there’s a classic Scorsese-esque tension that binds the movie. The use of implicit violence, as opposed to explicit, though that’s not to say the movie isn’t brutal, when it hits, it hits hard.
As a rule the most memorable gangster movies aren’t the ones peppered with over-the-top action and savagery, but the ones that use the threat of violence as momentum, a kind of invisible propulsion, keeping the audience on edge, and Brown uses this ploy beautifully. It’s what lifts the movie from being an ordinary and predictable gangster movie into something that feels authentic, that resonates, as if you’re watching a gripping documentary, rather than a crime drama.
Rezaj delivers a startlingly performance, essentially playing a fictionalised version of his true self. There’s even scenes with the two lead male characters talking directly to camera as if being interviewed. But there is strong work from the entire cast, especially Nucculaj, another new blood and one to watch out for, and Williams is terrific too, her centred, wary role a perfect counterpoint to the seething volatility of Leon.
Only his second feature, but Brown has the command of a seasoned filmmaker. Like Julia, Albanian Gangster is another powerful hybrid; part brooding character study, part slow-burn, pared-back thriller, and it rewards through its dramatic intensity, its ugly truthfulness; that gangland honour is steeped in brutal vengeance, always and forever.