Director: Tiller Russell
Cast: Michael Dowd, Ken Eurell, Walter Yurkiw
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: 14th August
Tiller Russell’s engrossing Precinct Seven Five offers a look at the circumstances under which Michael Dowd, a rookie policeman in a hectic Brooklyn precinct in the 1980s, came to be known as ‘the NYPD’s most corrupt cop ever.’ That this story plays out in the 1980s and early 1990s allows sufficient historical distance to avoid the discomfort of ‘too-soon’ familiarity or burnout. But coming at a time in which media representations of crooked justice systems and law enforcement, both real and fictional, inescapably proliferate globally, the events of Precinct Seven Five are not so far in the past that the audience can plea utter cultural dissonance.
The film neatly and deftly follows the rhythm of any well-structured crime thriller, while splicing Dowd’s Goodfellas-esque narration with interviews with family, former co-workers, and investigators; along with scenes from the Mollen commission, an inquiry into the corruption spreading virulently through the NYPD. We meet all the key archetypes – good cops, bad cops, intimidating heavies, flamboyant drug dealers and conscionable wives – and walk the well-worn beat of a gangster film and/or Drake song: started from the bottom, now we here. It all flows rather well, if not delivering any huge surprises in its form or structure. The filmmaking here is all but invisible in its standard efficacy.
The draw here is the content, and the alarming tone still present in Dowd’s narration-cum-testimony which for the most part shows a lack of remorse for his actions and a stunning disregard for his former position as a law enforcement officer. There are some moments of fissure, in which he gets visibly upset considering the outcomes of the illegal activity he engaged in and otherwise effectively sanctioned in his precinct. These regrets have clearly weighed heavier on him with the passage of time, and these scenes are moving, but still difficult to reconcile with the nearly defiant position he maintains otherwise. His skewed but unshakable code of honour, defining a good cop as one who always has his partner’s back, and affirmation that that this was an institutional attitude, not only squares him against his slightly more scrupulous partner, Kenny Eurell on a micro level, but raises alarming, larger questions about the ideologies inherent within the NYPD.
His motivations go curiously unchecked, beyond the obvious financial incentive – he is largely a creature of opportunity, skimming money from raided drug dens, eliciting bribes, and abusing his power everywhere. More than one agent involved in the investigation describes him as a criminal posing as a cop, or as having the air of a ‘perp’ about him, and he is repeatedly asked at trial which side of the law he most identifies with, to no conclusive answer.
The tone Russell’s film strikes is questionable at times. There is a pretty clear sense that we are not supposed to be on-side with Dowd’s criminal proclivity, but it is primarily his version of events that shapes the film, and his descriptions of his involvement with drug trafficking gangs and the money he’s stolen, delivered with the glee of a drinking buddy gave me pause. I recalled the furore over Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (or even going back to the aforementioned Goodfellas) which saw its human garbage bag of a protagonist, Jordan Belfort, elevated to an aspirational figure in some despicable realms of our world, and I wonder what these audiences will make of Dowd.
Precinct Seven Five is a neat, deft and well-structured crime thriller, with its true-life, first-hand accounts from those involved at the highest levels an intriguing bonus. Yet there is something desperately sad about the fact that, what should be the most shocking characteristic of the film’s antagonist – that he is a police officer who lives like a gangster thanks to means, opportunity and institutional ignorance – has less of an impact now, in 2015, than it likely did when Dowd’s story first broke in the 1990s. In an age of institutional implosions and increasingly despicable antiheroes, Precinct Seven Five is a timely, if despairingly familiar, narrative.