In his debut feature, director James Brooks turns the true story behind ‘Bomb City’ into a dark slide towards unavoidable violence.
There is nothing as harrowing as the knowledge of inevitable violence. When violence looms unseen in the background of a film, pulling characters inexorably towards some dark finality, we are made to feel angry and helpless in equal amounts. This sense of dread can be particularly useful for a biopic like Bomb City; even if we’re unfamiliar with the precise events that took place in the parking lot that December night in 1997, the film makes it clear from its opening moments that this community is about to suffer a loss. Everything that happens over the course of the film, then, happens through the veil of this impending act of violence.
Bomb City follows the final days of Brian Deneke, a member of the underground punk scene in Amarillo, Texas, in the late 1990s. For years, the community has seen a growing rift between the punk revivalists and the rich kids from the local high school football team; this rift would come to a head one night as the two communities would grab weapons and attack each other in the local parking lot, ending only when Deneke is crushed under the wheels of one student’s car. Jameson Brooks‘s film recreates the events leading up to this tragic night, intercutting them with scenes lifted directly from the court transcripts, scenes that attempt to rewrite history in real time.
Although the film bounces between a variety of different perspectives on both sides of the community, it mostly belongs to Dave Davis as Deneke. Davis bears a passing resemblance to a young Elias Koteas; like Koteas, Davis is able to convey both hardness and kindness in equal amounts, making him an instantly sympathetic character onscreen. This is especially important as Bomb City attempts to give Deneke the interior life he would be deprived of at his own murder trial. The young man was an aspiring concert promoter and amateur brewmaster; most everyone he encounters is delighted to see him, and when compared to the unhappy repression of Cody Cates – the film’s stand-in for real-life murderer Dustin Camp – Deneke is seen more as an aspiration than a villain in the making.
It’s hard not to draw a connection between the two. Given the intertwined nature of their fates, Bomb City takes every opportunity to compare and contrast the community experiences of Deneke and Cates. The film opens with two crosscut displays of violence: in one, Deneke returns home after time spent on the road and joins his friends in the mosh pit at the local bar. Meanwhile, Cates and his high school football team take on their crosstown rivals in a conference football game. Punks and football players combine to form a fever dream of flashing lights and colliding bodies; this sequence ends with on the part of the punks and a crushing defeat for the football team, pushing the two young men further down the path to their unfortunate act of violence.
And then there’s the treatment by law enforcement. While Deneke and his friends are generally well-liked by the public – they are depicted as regulars at the local burger joint and have even been enlisted to work on an art installation by an eccentric local millionaire – they are given no quarter by the Amarillo police department. When Deneke and his friends are caught tagging building in their neighborhood, their standoff with the police turns unexpectedly violent; officers break down the door to their building and forcibly restrain everyone inside, even spraying the men down with mace when they struggle against the police. Meanwhile, Cates and his team are shown throwing their own end-of-season bonfire in the middle of the woods, with the same officers arriving and politely asking the students to leave. It’s a double-standard we see reported in headlines around the country, but in Bomb City, the differences in this behavior stand out all the more due to the similarities of these two groups.
The through-line of it all is Cameron Wilson, the attorney tasked with putting together a defense of Cody Cates. Wilson relentlessly tears down Deneke throughout the film, positioning the murder victim as a violent offender and would-be murderer whose life ended in the only suitable fashion. “This is what that weapon-wielding goon wore the night of the altercation,” Wilson notes as he holds up Deneke’s studded leather jacket. “Looks to me like he was on a mission to kill.” Wilson’s disgust towards Deneke and his friends was considered shocking at the time; two years after Deneke’s death, the Dallas Observer would revisit the trial with defense attorney Warren L. Clark – the real-life inspiration for Wilson – and note his complete indifference to the damage he did to Deneke’s life. “Clark does an admirable job of concealing his glee that his client got off so easily,” Julie Lyons wrote, and in Wilson we are given the purest distillation of injustice in the film.
By pitting two middle-class white students against each other – and showing how methodically one can be torn apart to protect the interests of the more powerful family – Bomb City is proof that the abuses of power present in the justice system can target anyone who looks or acts even a little different. And in the wake of endless police shootings and charges of sexual assault, Bomb City proves that even the lives of middle-class white men are forfeit when they come in conflict with the unlimited potential of our protected youth. Tragic as its story may be, there is an unanswered question at the heart of Bomb City: if this could happen to someone like Deneke in a city like Amarillo, isn’t it possible – just possible – that there’s some element of truth to the accusations of police brutality we’ve seen over the years?