Kin (2018)

Kin first published by Sight & Sound, Jan/Feb 2019

Review: Jonathan and Josh Baker’s Kin, adapted and considerably expanded (by writer Daniel Casey) from their short film Bag Man (2014), opens with an exterior shot of a bleakly derelict factory under a grey sky. Alongside this ruined vision of contemporary apocalypse – in present-day Detroit – there lies a ‘One Way’ road sign, knocked over so that its arrow now points straight to the sky. It is a neat way for the film to foreground its twinned narrative trajectories towards gritty social realism and out-there science fiction. 

Certainly for its down-at-heel protagonist, 14-year-old Elijah Solinski (Myles Truitt), the only way is up. “Never felt I fit in – like, anywhere, really,” Eli says, his adolescent sense of estrangement highlighted by the fact that he is a black boy adopted (as an infant) into a white working-class family. Always in trouble at school, Eli is, despite the tough-loving moral guidance of his recently widowed father Hal (Dennis Quaid), drifting towards the kind of thievery that saw his older adoptive brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) sent to prison. Out stealing scrap metal from an abandoned building, Eli chances upon a futuristic weapon lying amid some corpses. At the same time, the newly released Jimmy has a violent run-in with gang leader Taylor Balik (James Franco), who had – for a large fee – offered him protection in prison. Jimmy and Eli hit the road and head west, pursued not only by Taylor and his gang, but also by a pair of masked soldiers with some very high-tech gear.

“Hey, we’re here to do life lessons,” Jimmy tells Milly (Zoë Kravitz) of Eli’s presence with him in the strip club where she works. “He’s here to become a man, aren’t you, bro?” Indeed, Kin is in many ways a classic road movie, as Eli’s travels with his brother(s) are also a journey of self-discovery and self-empowerment, with the teenager, caught on a cusp between fantasy and reality, gradually finding out who he is, who he wants to be, and where he might be headed.

Not only is the aptly titled Kin directed by brothers, but it also offers fraternal bonds as its recurrent theme. Though not a blood relative, Eli must negotiate his intimate connection with brother Jimmy (and his father), even as Taylor’s suicidal vendetta against Jimmy is driven by the death of his own brother Dutch. Meanwhile, John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet (1984) is inevitably evoked by the motif of two otherworldly agents relentlessly tracking down a black man. There is also more than a passing kinship with the Terminator films: at one point Eli is seen playing an arcade game expressly modelled on Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – which also featured a young boy both pursued and protected by futuristic figures –  while the climactic battle in a police station conjures a similar sequence from The Terminator (1984). The difference, though, is that this Mogwai-scored drama uses its fanciful elements to adumbrate a more grounded kind of alienation in the present. 

Synopsis: Detroit, today. Suspended from high school for fighting, 14-year-old black adoptee Elijah searches a ruin for scrap metal, and finds a futuristic gun there. His older white brother Jimmy, fresh out of prison, robs their father Hal’s workplace to pay back a protection debt to gang leader Taylor Balik. Hal intervenes, and in the ensuing chaos, is shot dead along with Taylor’s brother Dutch. Without revealing that Hal is dead, Jimmy flees west with Eli, pursued by Taylor’s armed gang and two futuristic soldiers. 

Jimmy takes Eli to a strip club where they meet Milly. When the owner Lee and his men attack Jimmy, Eli uses the ‘ray gun’ (which only he can operate) to dramatic effect, escaping with Jimmy and Milly. In a Vegas hotel, Eli sees TV news about Hal’s murder, and confronts Jimmy noisily. The brothers are arrested, while Milly slips away. Seeing news of the arrest, Taylor and his gang violently raid the police station where Jimmy is being held. Eli fights them off with the gun. As the police storm the building and Taylor shoots at Jimmy, the scene freezes, and the two soldiers tell Eli he was brought as a child to Earth for his protection, and will one day be needed back home. They turn the frozen bullet so that it will hit Taylor instead, and leave through a portal. Taylor is killed, Jimmy arrested, and Milly returns to look after Eli.

© Anton Bitel