Reappropriation is something of a tricky art. Plenty of events and people, real and fictional, have been endlessly reappropriated by art and artists, for worthy and unworthy means, to satisfactory and subpar ends. One unfortunate example is Kitty Genovese, a woman who was raped and murdered in 1964 outside of her apartment complex in Queens. Kitty became an object of reappropriation by the fault of a single article in the news. A few weeks after her death, the New York Times ran a story claiming that some 37 (or 38) people had witnessed her death, but none had done anything to help, let alone call the police. It painted a bleak picture of society and the individuals and families therein, and it’s the conceit from which “37” claims its “inspired by true events” title card.
The film picks up the morning before Genovese’s murder. The cast of characters are somewhat haphazardly assembled as they stream from their shared apartment complex and off toward their days. There are the odd children, Billy (Evan Fine) and Debbie (Sophia Lillis); the retiree (Thomas Kopache) playing dominos on the stoop; the worried mother (Maria Dizzia) and the worried grandmother (Lucy Martin); the Mexican doorman (Adrian Martinez); and the seemingly jobless, inert father (Jamie Harrold). Then, there is the black family new to the complex, led by the patriarchal, prideful father (Michael Potts) and his put-upon wife (Samira Wiley). And finally, for a brief moment, there is Kitty herself (Christina Brucato).
At first, it’s a bit much too take in. But after a few disjointed minutes, their relationships, and their faults, begin to take shape. And so too do the film’s first failings: These are not characters so much as they are flawed archetypes assembled from cliches and over-worn tropes. From the very beginning, no one is spared (save for the children). Not only are they looked down upon by the writing and filmmaking, but their own self-obsession, the movie seems to say, is what has led to murder. It is hard to avoid feeling, at some point, that it is not the perpetrator that is guilty, but these “witnesses” who saw something but, for whatever myriad reasons, did nothing — which, if anything, is an unsettling notion to propagate.
But the critical failure of “37” — because certainly a film is allowed to have disdain for its characters; there is no law that art must care for its subjects — is the fundamental lack of narrative, or even of tension. For those without a prior knowledge of Kitty and her story, there isn’t even a hint at what’s to come (and when it does, it stays fully in the periphery). Though even those waiting for the terrible event to unfold will struggle to find any cohesion, other than a theme of narcissism and self-obsession among the parents (and their refusal to believe the claims of their children, all of whom try to do the right thing). Instead, “37” leans heavily on atmosphere, which it captures with ease.
Steeped in a desaturated color palette, and shot mere blocks from the actual murder (only a New York restriction from the Mayor’s Office prevented them from shooting at Kew Gardens), the unsettling tone, once it takes root, refuses to let up. Still, a few moments of unearned melodrama speckled throughout do jar the cool restraint. The visual flair, though, is unwavering. “37” is a beautifully captured film, well-framed and well-lit and shot with an energy that the rest of the film lacks. Paired with the generally solid performances, in retrospect, it’s almost hard to understand just how impenetrable the film can feel, especially since the heavy mood and tone resonate so deeply.
It is hard to overstate just how simplistic the film’s approach to a real-life tragedy is, however. The central message seems to be not that these people, these “witnesses,” failed to respond adequately to the situation because they didn’t understand what was happening, but that they knew full well what was going on but chose not to call 911 out of self-interest. Essentially, it captures well the nihilistic view of humanity the murder inspired for decades.
“37” is a poignant portrait of how the world saw the men and women who “didn’t want to get involved” back in 1964. The trouble, though, is that it feels less interested in offering any commentary or adding any substance than in propagating the original myth. But in doing so, it manages to be a competently directed — if poorly written — debut feature from Puk Grasten that certainly has its enjoyable moments (notably in the scenes with Potts and Wiley, who do excellent work). In a way, the film feels like just as much of a bystander as the fictionalized lives it bears witness to. [C-]