jrhovind’s review published on Letterboxd:
A work of searing anger, its insights into the realities of both work and race as powerful as they are wearying. We begin with bodies in motion, Captain Beefheart’s “Hard Workin’ Man” on the soundtrack, caught amid grinding conveyer belts and flashes of mechanical fire, captured in a series of arresting freeze frames, like cogs in the machines to which they're beholden. By film’s end, those bodies will be ever more battered and wearied, and even if the body survives, the soul’s still going to be crushed by the very system that takes just as much as it gives. America's distinctively unhinged kind of capitalism has a way of doing that.
Richard Pryor (a kinetic, charismatic presence, even if not a great actor in any conventional sense), Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto emerge as the three of those bodies filmmaker Paul Schrader is most interested in (Zeke, Jerry, and Smoky James). The film’s first half is leisurely and laidback, frequently quite funny, but no amount of drinking at the corner bar or joking with one another about the annoyances of work and home can mask the fact that each man is coming disastrously close to the end of his tether. Zeke owes the IRS thousands of dollars he’s never going to have (after lying for years about how many children he has, leading to one of the film’s funniest moments as he sends his wife to round-up the neighbor’s children once the IRS man comes knocking); the impoverishment of Jerry’s own home life become undeniable to him once he sees his teenage daughter’s mouth filled with blood, improvising wires to build the braces she needs but he can’t afford; while Smoky James is up to his neck in shady debt to menacing loan sharks. One, long drug-fueled night and they come up with perfect plan: rob the office of the union that’s never done a thing for them while happy to take their dues.
And from there, the laughs fade away as the noose tightens around the three men, going up the factory bosses on one side, the union’s deep-rooted corruption on the other (not to mention capitalism’s inherent inability to care about individual people, and the systemic racial divisions that the powers-that-be use to further drive the three friends apart). Schrader never abandons his gritty, lived-in, naturalist aesthetic, even as the film comes to take on the mood of an alienated piece of Antonioni-esque modernism, useless human passions and attempts at freedom playing out before an ominously massive and constantly ticking mechanical counter of the cars rolling off the factory’s lot. The men actually running the machines are ultimately cheap and corruptible and disposable things, but the cars still keep on coming. By film’s end, the system’s done exactly what it’s needed to do, draining the life and fellow-feeling entirely from Zeke and Jerry (not to mention Smoky James’s own cruel fate). We’re back in the factory just as we began, the purgatorial space captured in another freeze frame that’s as despairing and bitter of a concluding vision as I can recall in film.