“The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” shook me up a lot when I watched it at last night. Based on one tragic real-life incident which occurred in one poor neighborhood of White Plains, New York during the early morning of November 29th, 2011, the movie is alternatively infuriating and harrowing in its vivid and realistic presentation of mental illness and police brutality, and it is also firmly anchored by its strong lead performance which is incidentally one of the best performances of this year.
The movie opens with its ill-fated hero sleeping in his small apartment. He is a 70-year-old African American ex-marine named Kenneth Chamberlain (Frankie Faison), and we gradually come to gather that he lives alone in his residence despite his several serious health problems including his weak heart condition. He wears a beeper just in case for his medical emergency, but he happens to activate it by coincidence while he is sleeping, and there soon comes a phone call from his medical service company.
Because Chamberlain does not answer the phone call while still sleeping, his medical service company follows its protocol as usual. Several minutes later, a trio of local police officers come into the apartment building, and then they knock on the door of Chamberlain’s apartment just for checking whether everything is okay in his apartment. Awakened by the sound of knocking, Chamberlain tries to process this sudden unexpected situation, but we can clearly sense that he is not in his best condition at all. Besides his weak physical status, he has also struggled with considerable mental illness, and that is the main reason why he becomes so rattled that he refuses to open the door for the police officers outside his apartment.
After this narrative point, we see how tension slowly escalates between Chamberlain and the police officers. Suspecting that Chamberlain is hiding something in his apartment, the police officers become more hostile and aggressive than before as knocking his apartment door again and again, and that certainly makes Chamberlain a lot more disturbed than before. Although he tries to be as sensible as he can, it seems that there is nothing he possibly can do except adamantly refusing to open his apartment door, and he also becomes quite paranoid in his increasingly isolated status.
In the meantime, his medical service company does try a bit for him, but it still cannot make the police officers go away, and the same thing can be said about his close family members. One of them actually comes later, but then the police officers does not allow any contact between Chamberlain and this family member of his because, well, they really believe they are doing the right thing. Even though Chamberlain is just a weak and helpless old man, they suspect him without hesitation just because of his background, and this will certainly remind you of numerous other recent tragic incidents involved with police brutality in the American society.
Later in the story, it becomes apparent to the police officers that they are probably making a serious mistake, but, to our frustration and exasperation, they all simply let the situation escalate further with more tension and danger. When one of them comes to have more doubt about Chamberlain, this police officer tries to be reasonable with Chamberlain as well as his colleagues, but he also becomes as helpless as Chamberlain around the time when more police officers come to the apartment building, and the circumstance eventually goes beyond control for him as well as others including Chamberlain, whose mental condition gets worse and worse as the police officers outside his apartment corner him more and more.
What inevitably happens between Chamberlain and the police officers in the film is pretty grueling to say the least, but director/writer/co-producer David Midel, who previously made a feature film debut with “NightLights” (2014), and his crew members including cinematographer Camrin Petramale and editor Enrico Natale, who also plays one of the police officers in the film, did a skillful job of holding our attention to the end. Chamberlain’s final moment in the film is devastating to say the least, and we subsequently come to learn a bit of how much the movie is close to what actually happened to him in real life.
As the center of the film, Frankie Faison, a veteran character actor who has been known for his appearances in numerous movies and TV series (I still remember him well for his brief minor supporting turn in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Hannibal” (2001), by the way), is utterly convincing in his character’s gradual mental implosion along the story. Although the movie does not show much of his character’s private life, Faison fills his character with considerable details and nuances, and he is particularly heartbreaking when his character copes with not only the police officers but also his deteriorating state of mind at one point later in the film.
On the whole, “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain” looks rather modest on the surface, but it often feels quite intense and sobering thanks to its commendable technical aspects and Faison’s commendable performance, and I recommend it with some caution. Yes, it is surely a tough stuff, but it is still worthwhile to watch in my trivial opinion, and, after watching it, you may come to reflect more on those urgent social issues indirectly raised by the film.